A five-year partial freeze on power rates, combined with a pause in key state earnings reviews for the state's two biggest electric companies, cleared the Virginia House Thursday on a lopsided bipartisan vote.
The bill, assembled with significant input from Dominion Virginia Power, had already cleared the state Senate. It heads now to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who hasn't said whether he'll sign it.
But McAuliffe has said that he spent more than an hour discussing this legislation with Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell recently. And the bill passed both chambers by wide margins.
Peninsula legislators supported the bill unanimously. Two local Democrats they looked hard for a reason to oppose the bill, which critics see as a part of a de-regulation push meant to protect Dominion profits at customers' expense.
"I could not find anything that would hurt the consumer," said Del. Jeion Ward, who voted against the bill in committee this week because she wanted more time to analyze it.
"It always concerns me ... because immediately you think of Dominion as a monopoly and you wonder if they really care," said Ward, D-Hampton. "(The bill) looks like a good guarantee."
Senate Bill 1349 would freeze base rates, which make up more than half a customer's bill, for Dominion and western Virginia's Appalachian Power. Legislators, and Dominion officials, have described the legislation as a "time out" while utilities and regulators grapple with new carbon output rules being finalized by the federal government.
Other rates, including fuel costs, could go up or down with oversight from the State Corporation Commission, which regulates these utilities.
Dominion has said it will drop prices before that freeze – 5 percent for residential customers and 10 percent for industrial ones. It has also said the bill will keep it from passing on to customers losses it may face from shuttering carbon-intensive coal plants.
It has also agreed to shoulder repair costs from storms or other natural disasters during the freeze, without raising customer rates, though the bill does include language allowing a pass-on if the SCC deems an emergency need.
The company included an energy assistance and weatherization program for the poor in the final bill. Solar energy language initially sponsored by Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, was also dropped in, allowing Dominion to request a rate increase to cover the cost of building a massive new solar energy facility.
McAuliffe said last week that he was "very happy" about the solar addition. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which was initially against the bill, also praised the change. A number of small solar companies had previously complained, though, that Yancey's bill left too much control of a growing industry in Dominion's hands.
Dominion and Appalachian Power would also forego several years of biennial reviews, which the SCC uses to determine company profits and other metrics. If the SCC thinks profits are too high, based on state regulations, it can order rate cuts and refunds.
That would be off the table for Dominion until 2022, when the SCC would start taking a look at the two year's prior. The Attorney General's consumer protection office, which argues cases before the SCC, opposed the bill. So did a coalition of some of the state's largest industrial power users, as well as an apartment and office building association in the Washington, D.C., area.
This legislation followed a bill from last year that allowed Dominion to take an early write off on development costs at a planned new nuclear power plant. That, too, large electricity users and other critics said at the time, was aimed at avoiding an eventual SCC move to lower rates.
Dominion said the bill was about setting the stage for nuclear expansion.
Del. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, voted against that 2014 bill. He voted yes on Thursday. He said Dominion's rates have risen just 2 percent since 2007, and the bill locks the base rate for another five.
"Pretty good for the consumer," he said.
Mason also said large power users in his area didn't oppose the bill.
"I kept looking ... for some nefarious, underlying story," Mason said. "I did a bunch of research for it. I didn't find it."
Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.