dominion-building By Peter Galuszka

Last week, I posted a blog item titled “Why Virginia Has No Renewable Energy,” which drew considerable comments from readers. The day after it ran, I got a call from Chester G. “ Chet” Wade, the vice president of corporate communications for Dominion Resources who had a complaint about my item.

I had written that one reason why Virginia has a tiny amount of renewable energy sourcing compared to its neighbors was it that they have a mandatory “renewable portfolio standard” while Virginia’s is only voluntary.

One major reason, I wrote, was that :

“Dominion, of course, is a huge political contributor. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion and Dominion Resources combined are the No. 1 corporate donors in this state. They gave about $1,042,580 this year. The No. 3 corporate donor is Alpha Natural Resources, a major coal company based in Bristol that gave $218,874.”

Chet didn’t dispute my facts but said I failed to note the wealth of contributions from green outfits that Terry McAuliffe, our Democratic governor, got in the 2013 gubernatorial campaign. I hadn’t brought up McAuliffe’s race in my post, but I do try to be fair, so I asked Chet to write a response and said that I’d post it. He hasn’t yet.

In last year’s race, McAuliffe raised $38 million compared to $21 million for Kenneth N. Cuccinelli, the hardline Republican conservative who spent part of his time and tax payers’ money going after Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist, when he was attorney general.

Although I am not certain what Chet’s point was as far as McAuliffe, I went back and confirmed what he said. In the 2013 race, McAuliffe got part of the $1.9 million from the League of Conservation Voters; almost $1 million from the national and Virginia chapters of the Sierra Club; and $1.6 million from NextGen, an environmental PAC started by Bay Area hedge fund manager Tom Steyer who has strong views on the dangers of climate change.

Chet said it was unfair for me not to note the money from Big Green. (By the way, Dominion gave McAuliffe $75,000 in the governor’s race and somewhat less to Cuccinelli.)

So, to be fair to both Big Green and Dominion, I called Glen Besa, head of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Glen said that, yes, indeed, a coalition of environmentalists had gone out of their way to back McAullife because they badly wanted to keep Cuccinelli from becoming governor. “You had a clear climate change denier with Cuccinelli,” said Glen. “He would be an embarrassment to Virginia and would have caused damage in the national debate about global warming.”

So, the greenies pulled out the stops and let their money flow. Glen, however, said that the contributions “were exceptional” and not really sustainable. Usually, the Sierra Club donates in the tens of thousands of dollars in Virginia races.

Now that McAullife has won, I don’t think Dominion can say he’s against them. If anything McAuliffe has disappointed environmentalists by coming out for continued use of coal, the introduction of East Coast offshore oil drilling, nuclear and building a 550-mile pipeline for fracked natural gas that would run from Clarksburg, W.Va. through much of Virginia to the North Carolina border. A second gas pipeline is in the works through Southwestern Virginia. Local activists and Greens are on the streets protesting the projects. Dominion is a backed and major player in the first pipeline. McAuliffe is not exactly out to get them.

What’s the upshot? Dominion is one of the few enormous, Virginia-based companies like Alpha Natural Resources and Altria that have long been dominant players in the political arena. Like well-oiled machines, they hand out millions in cash to political candidates. They have also bankrolled useful groups to voters such as the Virginia Public Access Project, a non-profit that collects and makes available donation data. Dominion has one of the most experienced and professional team of lobbyists anywhere.

Dominion almost always gets things its way. Back about 15 years ago, for example, a deregulation wave for setting electricity rates was sweeping the country and Dominion asked to be part of it. But a few years later, Dominion realized that dereg wasn’t working quite to their advantage, so they got the General Assembly to change it all back again to regulation. “It is testimony to how much power they have,” says Glen. “(State Sen.) Tommy Norment just reached into his drawer and pulled out a re-reg bill,” he adds.

What seems to miff Dominion and the corporate elite is that the environmentalist lobby has grown up and become sophisticated and professional, just as they are. They can raise big money and throw it around when they want to. Somehow, this is viewed as an unsavory intrusion on Dominion’s sacred turf. No more hippies in old sneakers.

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11 responses to “No More Hippies in Old Sneakers”

  1. we need to differentiate where the money in politics ultimately comes from and we need to look at more than just the Gov every 4 years but in the General Assembly – not only money but full time lobbyists.

    Most Sierra Club (and similar “green”) money comes from voluntary contributions from individuals.

    Where does Dominion money come from?

    How many paid lobbyists are there for Dominion and related energy and power companies – compared to environmental groups?

    and again – who pays for the Dominion lobbyists?

    I don’t blame Dominion for their efforts to protect and preserve their investments – and their investors. I would expect nothing less of them.

    But it’s also clear that they have significant and sustainable influence in all levels of politics in Virginia as well as what appears to be at least some folks in the SCC that lean more towards Dominions interests than ratepayers and the environment.

    There is no secret why we do not have solar and wind of any scope in Virginia and it’s because Dominion is not in favor of it.

    I talked to a friend with Solar Panels in New Mexico and he says the power company has to buy his solar at the same price he pays for grid power.

    Maybe there is some room for perhaps requiring solar power to be sold back at wholesale rates but over and over it comes across that Dominion knows that ownership of the grid and the “rules” for interfacing to it – especially for smaller start-up companies affects the viability of such companies.

    Dominion is not interested in solar – but they are also not interested in other companies getting involved in supplying solar-generated electricity into the grid -either…

    and their lobbyists which far outnumber the solar guys – work full time perusing proposed legislation and dealing one on one sub-committee and committee members to “wordsmith” proposals .. re-write them – or just get rid of them… so as to be able to maintain lock, stock and barrel ownership of the grid … and it’s rules for access.

    despite all of this – the NRDC says that solar provides more jobs than coal in Virginia:

    and who knows what would happen if Dominion actually decided to get really involved in solar?

  2. Dominion is a huge company – more than 14,000 employees, similar in size to VDOT in that it has many agencies within it that deal with specific areas and like VDOT’s history with roads, Dominion’s core mission is power generation from fossil fuels.

    and like VDOT having to move more and more away from road building to managing the transportation “grid” using computers, electronic signs, data gathering, etc… Dominion is likewise faced with a similar challenge of how to modernize a moribund grid that was never designed to be able to dynamically load balance thousands of small and diverse power sources as compared to a couple of dozen of mega plants.. that take hours, days to ramp up or down.

    Dominion, like VDOT likes their historic means of meeting their mission more than the evolving one – in my view.

    Dominion is not keen to jump into anything.. in part, because they do have to please their investors – and that brings up the question of who would actually pay to modernize the grid?

    Is there a real ROI in modernizing the grid to easily adapt to wind/solar?

    or it is something that rate-payers will have to pay for?

    Since Peter actually is having a conversation with Dominion folks – wouldn’t it be a real benefit to readers of BR to hear a Dominion perspective on this issue?

    How about it?

    Part of the problem – we all have – sometimes – is we are – ignorant – not stupid but ignorant – lacking knowledge of issues … that if we had more knowledge of – it probably would affect our views.

    My view right now is that Dominion is not an evil entity – they’re just an ordinary businesses with an extraordinary mission (try doing without power for a few hours) – and they are caught up in a technology evolution that will not be easy to evolve to without a lot of time and money.

  3. Google/search for: ” INTERSTATE SYSTEM ACCESS

    then go to page 48 that talks about “braided ramps and CD lanes”:

    ” Interchange Configuration and Spacing

    Interchanges, when spaced too closely along an Interstate corridor, negatively affect the traffic operations and safety performance of the Interstate. When evaluating the interval at which interchanges will be located, factors such as spacing between ramps, auxiliary lanes, weaving areas, and signing between interchanges need to be scrutinized. The minimum spacing for urban interchanges specified in the AASHTO Interstate Access Guide is 1 mile (3 miles in rural areas). However, longer intervals between points of access may be needed to preserve operations and performance of the system. In particular, system interchanges (which may have higher traffic volumes, multi-lane ramps, and longer ramps) will need more distance to the next interchange. To mitigate the effects of closely-spaced interchanges, designers may need to employ braided ramps, collector-distributor roads, or frontage roads.”

    so what they are saying is that if we have high-traffic interchanges that feed a lot of traffic onto the interstates that we need to do more than just traditional ramps.

    the key to the transportation issues in a commuter-centric area like ours is the use of C/D lanes and braided ramps rather than trying to build new parallel interior roads thorough established neighborhoods.

    Trying to build such interior roads will be difficult and arduous and likely fail so we should focus on what we can do – which is CD/braided ramps from Garrisonville (610) to Massaponax, done in phases – over time… It’s the only real solution that will help BOTH commuters from our region AND east coast travelers trying to get through the DC area.

    it won’t be cheap and it will take time but the sooner we reconcile ourselves to doing it – and agree as a region to do it – the better it will be – not only for folks who live here and work up north – but other East Coast travellers just trying to get through our region.

    We could help pay for these CD lanes by extending the HOT lanes to Route 3 or even Massaponax.

  4. Peter, you touched upon the *real* issue for Dominion at the bottom of your article — re-regulation. I think that’s a much bigger issue for them than Renewable Portfolio Standards. Dominion opposes RPS on the grounds that it will raise electric rates and reduce reliability. That would create headaches for the company, but it wouldn’t hurt shareholders. The higher cost of RPS will just get passed on to ratepayers.

    A far bigger issue is deregulation versus deregulation. I haven’t studied this closely so I’m fuzzy on the implications. But there is a body of thought that says emerging “smart grid” technologies would open up far more opportunities for small-time power generators to compete with Dominion. Dominion is perfectly OK with small-scale renewable/alternate energy projects if Dominion owns them; Dominion is not OK if someone else owns them.

    I suspect that a careful reading of history would show that Dominion saw this challenge coming long before anyone else in Virginia, which is why the company promoted re-regulation. Regulation is a tool to limit competition. This is the area that needs delving into.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      You cannot have strict rate-of-return (revenues less expenses equals allowed profit) with competition unless you want to distort the market and provide a further incentive for allowing service to degrade.

      Virginia’s attempt at electricity generation competition was a joke. No one entered the market to undercut Dominion’s prices. The only thing I saw was proposals to pay more for green electricity. Duh! Competition means lower prices.

      A fundamental part of traditional utility regulation is a duty to serve all. Since some of those customers are expensive to serve, a duty to serve all is accompanied by a service monopoly. Real competition is not cream skimming.

      While I have many criticisms of Dominion, the failure of retail electric competition lies with the competitors that were unable to generate a product that cost less than Dominion. If MCI and Sprint would have been unable to offer long distance calls at prices below AT&T, does anyone think telecom would have become competitive? And who is putting price pressure on Verizon and AT&T in the wireless market? Sprint and T-Mobile.

      The FCC has always maintained a market needs at least three facility-based competitors for service and price competition to exist. I agree. I suspect the same holds true for electricity. Who are the two companies that will undercut Dominion’s prices and serve all of Dominion’s geographic market? I don’t think there are any. Hence, we have what we have.

    2. Any chance of getting someone at Dominion to do a piece explaining their viewpoint?

  5. billsblots Avatar

    “He would be an embarrassment to Virginia and would have caused damage in the national debate about global warming.”

    Warmers define “damage to the national debate about global warming” as anyone who wants an open discussion and the introduction of science.

    1. kind of hard to have an “open discussion” when one side accuses scientists around the world of a global falsify climate data…

      what comes next after that contribution is added to the “discussion”?

  6. It’s nice that Dominion gave some feedback, but like LarryG, I was hoping for more discussion of the technical points. In particular, I thought Dominion does invest in some wind power and allows customers to opt-in for that and pay a little extra.

    I am not a big supporter of the mandated renewable RPS, but I strongly agree though that smaller and more decentralized is usually better than what the utilities have in mind (humongous big plants).

    This is an important issue…my past experience was in NJ building trash-to-steam plants, but not necessarily getting a fair price for power produced (I did not build the plants myself, I advocated for them over landfills). Also the NJ politicians/DEP on behalf of the utilities blocked private industry from building nat gas power plants, because they wanted centralized coal-fired plants instead.

    My hope is that we can encourage smaller plants of all kinds — wind, solar, trash-to-stream, nukes, etc — as opposed to picking somebody’s favorite energy source.

    1. ” encourage smaller plants of all kinds — wind, solar, trash-to-stream, nukes, etc — as opposed to picking somebody’s favorite energy source.”

      totally agree – both landfills and sewage treatment could capture gas and essentially function as generation sites.

  7. […] recent days, there’s been a plenty of discussion about renewable energy.  After I wrote two posts,  Chester “Chet” Wade, a senior spokesman for Dominion Resources, […]

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