First Bill to Amend VCEA Buried by Committee

Failed bill may have given the SCC a path to refuse Dominion’s proposed offshore wind project.

by Steve Haner

The first of several pending bills to slow Virginia’s rush to an expensive energy future based on unreliable electricity just failed in a Republican-controlled committee. There is every reason to expect the same fate for two other pending measures with similar goals.

In past years energy bills have gone to a subcommittee, usually for consideration in concert with similar bills on the same topic. House Bill 839, sponsored by Delegate Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg, appeared by itself Tuesday on the docket of the full House Commerce and Energy Committee. 

Wilt told the committee he had campaigned on the issue, telling his voters he would do something about the predicted massive increases in electricity costs. So had others on the committee made those campaign promises. So had Governor Glenn Youngkin. Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears specifically mentioned the looming threat of $800 electricity bill increases in her advertising, citing data from the independent State Corporation Commission.

That didn’t stop the committee from voting to carry the bill over to the 2023 session, and in the meantime send it to be studied by an inactive (and as constituted now, hostile) legislative panel called the Commission on Electric Utility Regulation.

That joint House and Senate body, according to its website, hasn’t even met since 2017 (final agenda here). It was reconstituted two years ago when Democrats took control of both chambers, with only Democrats seated on the Senate side. The House membership listed includes two Democratic delegates no longer in the House, so new House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R) can make that side majority-Republican when filling those vacancies.

The acronym for the group, CEUR, is pronounced by everybody as “sewer.” Not everybody on it is a major recipient of Dominion Energy campaign donations. Some have instead received equal or even larger amounts of money from the renewable energy industry groups. Since the utility and renewable industry interests align on building massive amounts of solar and wind projects, some take money from both.

The 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act with its wind, solar and battery mandates and constraints on SCC oversight is incredibly complicated. Few understood it when it was adopted and many still don’t. A sudden move to repeal it wholesale probably raises the same issues as the earlier behind-the-scenes push to create it. A year spent really tearing it apart and considering revisions might be the best way to get back on a better track.

But that panel as constituted is a kangaroo court waiting for a victim. The review process needs to cast a far wider net and be led by Governor Youngkin’s new administration.

Wilt put up a spirited argument for his proposal, but the meeting didn’t allow outside speakers and Chairwoman Kathy Byron, R-Forest, even cut off a request to have somebody from the SCC discuss the issue. She assured Wilt and the public that the issue will get a full airing in the study group, and “won’t be lost in the wind.”

“Or the sun,” piped up the ever-helpful Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City. Kilgore was the committee member who started the rush to stop the bill. He is usually the first to speak up with Dominion’s talking points, and in the wake of what happened yesterday a new verb is called for: The bill was “Kilgored.”

Wilt’s bill was fairly simple, but effective. It gave the SCC the authority to pay for the coming wind and solar capital bonanza by charging the costs to base rates if that was the most reasonable outcome. Now the projects are covered by additive rate adjustment clauses on monthly bills. And it allowed the SCC to deny applications for major projects unless they were necessary and the lowest-cost option.

Nothing could be more threatening to the wind and solar industrial complex and the utility intending to enrich its stockholders for decades to come. This was a great bill. For once, when the lobbyists whispered the bill would kill the coming offshore wind project, they may have been correct, as nobody seriously claims it as a low-cost option.

Had the bill lived longer an amendment was planned to clarify it only applied to future project applications. The committee process never got that far.

Far more complex, a sledgehammer compared to this scalpel, is House Bill 118, sponsored by Delegate Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper. Line by line, section by section, it repeals the Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020, which set up the mandates for wind and solar and a timetable to kill off all fossil fuel use. A large coalition has been building to promote that bill, not yet scheduled for hearing.

If it gets the same treatment as Wilt’s, there will be no hearing and no roll call vote on the merits.

The third bill splits the difference, repealing parts of the VCEA and restoring quite a bit of SCC authority. That is Ware’s House Bill 73. Getting into the details of the bills seems fruitless at this point, but read them if you are interested and if life remains in one or more, there will be reason to.

Did the 2021 election change anything? So far it doesn’t seem so.