Commentary

Dominion is abusing its monopoly. Time for a new model.

December 3, 2021 12:02 am

Dominion Energy offices in Richmond, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For The Virginia Mercury)

By John Hanger

The power of voters and consumers to choose their representatives and suppliers of goods and services is the foundation of our government and economy. Indeed, in the marketplace, with the prominent exception of state-sanctioned utility monopolies, the single greatest consumer protection is the power of choice, the ability to take your business to a competing business. 

Now that the voters have chosen their representatives, it is the time to give the power of choice to captive ratepayers of Dominion.   That can be done by enacting competitive market reforms and ending Dominion’s monopoly. Yet, there is a big roadblock ahead.

Having massively overcharged its captured customers, Dominion launched an aggressive public relations, lobbying and political campaign to keep its monopoly. With probably millions of dollars behind it, this Dominion campaign, spreading fear and misinformation, should raise concern among Virginia’s elected officials and regulators 

According to a May 14 VPM report, Dominion Energy – Virginia largest public electric utility – confirmed it was funding a campaign by the pro-monopoly utility group, Power for Tomorrow, that warned against energy market “deregulation” in Virginia. The group made reckless and false claims that disaster would happen if Virginia customers were freed from electricity generation monopolies and given the power to choose their electricity supplier or generate their own electricity. 

Just as important as the misinformation spread by Dominion is what it does not tell Virginians or their elected representatives. Virginians’ power to choose their electricity supplier or generate their own electricity at their homes and businesses would be exercised in the proven PJM regional power market, the largest in the world, that has rules and regulators, with the legal duty to keep service reliable and prices competitive. 

While ending Dominion’s monopoly and allowing every business and family in Virginia to buy from competing electricity suppliers or generate their own power would end Dominion’s easy ride, which Dominion sees as a “disaster” for it, ending the monopoly would give all Virginia’s businesses and families immediate options, such as 100 percent renewable energy products, fixed-price power contracts for one, two or three years and other services to reduce electricity consumption.

As concerning as it was to see a publicly regulated utility, like Dominion Energy, spend money to advocate against policies that would actually benefit its customers, it was even more shocking to learn that, in addition to funding Power for Tomorrow, Dominion was funding a political action committee engaged in disinformation akin to a voter suppression attempt. According to an October 16 Richmond Times-Dispatch article, Dominion donated $200,000 to the secretive Virginia Accountability PAC, based in Washington, D.C., that ran ads attacking then-GOP gubernatorial candidate, Glenn Youngkin.

Unfortunately, these are just the latest examples of Dominion Energy using its resources and influence to prioritize profits and shareholders over its customers.

During the 2021 General Assembly session, Dominion Energy opposed efforts that would have returned utility over-charges to customers, restored regulatory oversight, and strengthened consumer protection measures. These were not complicated bills. If not for the necessary legal jargon, the legislation could have simply read: “give customers back the money you overcharged them.”  

Dominion also opposed bipartisan legislation that would have maintained retail choice provisions, allowing currently captive residential and small business customers to “shop” for their preferred energy product, such as 100 percent solar energy or a mix of solar and wind. Under this model, Dominion would still distribute the electricity to the customers, but the customer could procure the electricity from a less expensive and cleaner source.  

Each of these measures would have provided greater choice, lower costs and stronger protections for electricity customers in Virginia. Restoring common sense measures intended to protect customers, like those outlined above, would be a reasonable start.  

Virginia’s elected leadership has an opportunity in 2022 to reevaluate the role and influence of vertically integrated monopoly giants like Dominion Energy. Further, the governor-elect and the General Assembly may consider preserving or expanding retail competition policies, giving residential and commercial customers the ability to purchase their preferred electricity product from a regulated competitive service provider – a measure widely supported by business, environmental and consumer advocate groups.  

If there’s one takeaway from Dominion’s brazen efforts to push their own agenda and influence elections in their favor, it’s that Virginia customers desperately need the power of choice and  someone looking out for their interests first. These customers should look to their newly elected representatives to lead this charge in January. Virginia can and must do better.

John Hanger is a former commissioner of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission who has testified before the Virginia State Corporation Commission. He lives in Massachussets.  

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