Gov. Terry McAuliffe has signed legislation freezing electricity rates and exemption Dominion Power and Appalachian Power from periodic state rate reviews, his office said Tuesday afternoon.
Senate Bill 1349 has been one of the more controversial bills of this legislative session, though it flew through both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly on bipartisan votes. Critics say the bill represents Dominion's latest push to undo a series of state regulations largely passed in 2007.
Dominion and bill supporters said the legislation was needed to deal with coming uncertainty from pending new federal regulations on carbon dioxide output by utilities.
In announcing that he signed the bill Tuesday, McAuliffe focused on a handful of changes made after he met with Dominion's CEO, including the addition of language initially sponsored by Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, declaring solar energy projects in the public interest and allow Dominion to propose rate increases to fund a massive new solar generation facility.
"This bill will make a dramatic expansion of Virginia's renewable energy economy possible, and will lead to lower energy bills for many families who may be struggling to keep up with their energy costs today," McAuliffe said in a news release. "I have also instructed state agencies responsible for overseeing this legislation to work quickly to help bring the benefits of this bill to our Commonwealth as soon as possible."
McAuliffe issued an executive directive when he signed the bill, ordering various agencies to work with Dominion and others to implement the bill's solar energy language, as well as a promised weatherization and savings program for senior citizens, low-income and disabled customers.
The bill would freeze Dominion's base rates – which make up more than half of a customer's bill – for five years. The company has said the bill would also shift cost burdens for storm cleanups and the closure of coal-fired plants, which may be required by coming carbon regulations, from ratepayers to shareholders.
But it would also put a hold on State Corporation Commission reviews of Dominion and Appalachian's base rates, a process used to make sure the regulated monopolies don't earn more than is allowed by state regulations. Critics, including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring's consumer protection office, have complained that the language loosens customer protections and could allow the companies to charge higher rates than they would otherwise be able to.
That's particularly true, they argue, when combined with legislation the General Assembly passed last year, dealing with the way Dominion accounts for the costs of a planned nuclear plant expansion.
Dominion disputes this, casting the bill as good for customers.
Dominion is the state's top corporate donor to political campaigns, having given more than $13 million going back to 1996, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which catalogs donations.
McAuliffe didn't take any money from the company during his unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2009, but in his second go around accepted $160,000, according to VPAP.
That's significantly less than his campaign took from environmental groups.
Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.