Dominion Energy offices in Richmond, Va. Parker Michels-Boyce for The Virginia Mercury
Last December, Dominion Energy produced a remarkable document: a climate report predicting that by 2040 its electricity supply will be dominated by renewable energy. Coal will be gone by 2030, and methane gas will hang around in ever-smaller amounts, just to fill in the energy gaps. Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) probably won’t play a role for at least 15 years, during which time solar will become the mainstay of the electricity supply. According to the report, this strategy will allow Dominion to meet its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.
Fast forward a few months, and the same company, using the same information, projects a future full of new methane-burning plants and SMRs. Dominion Energy Virginia’s 2023 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), released May 1, now insists that the phenomenal growth of the data center industry and, to a lesser degree, the adoption of electric vehicles require so much energy that it can’t possibly meet legally-mandated climate goals. Accordingly, the plan doesn’t even try.
Instead of decarbonizing in accordance with Virginia’s role in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the requirements of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), Dominion now says it must build new methane-burning plants and keep old, expensive coal plants running “beyond statutory retirement deadlines established in the VCEA.” All the alternatives examined in the IRP “assume that Virginia exits the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (‘RGGI’) before January 1, 2024,” in violation of Virginia law. Most of the alternatives include the same SMRs its Climate Report recognized as unready. Compared to Dominion’s 2022 IRP update (filed just last September!), now costs have ballooned and CO2 emissions will skyrocket.
What could possibly have happened in the course of a few months to produce this about-face? The astounding growth projections for the data center industry may be news to many Virginians, but not to the utility that provides their power. Vehicle electrification is hardly a surprise either. SMRs did not achieve any breakthroughs in technology or economics this winter, nor did anyone suddenly discover a way for new gas plants to make sense for the climate or ratepayers.
What did happen was the 2023 General Assembly session, in which Gov. Glenn Youngkin played a decisive role in handing Dominion a major – and unaccustomed – defeat. With Dominion Energy holding its shareholder meeting today, the company badly needs to show it is back in the governor’s good graces. And the governor, as we know, is not a fan of the energy transition.
In other words, the IRP is a political document, not a serious approach to meeting Virginia’s electricity needs, at a time when climate change is accelerating and fossil fuels are giving way to superior renewable energy technologies.
Market watchers will recall that Dominion’s stock price tanked in the fall of 2022, losing more than 30% of its value from August to November. So the company came up with a bill that would have increased the profit margin for its Virginia utility from 9.35% to 10.77%. This number was calculated to improve Dominion’s standing on Wall Street but would cost consumers an extra $4 billion, according to the State Corporation Commission’s estimate. The company also expected to be able to defeat pro-consumer legislation that would return more authority over rates to the SCC.
Dominion’s bill was widely panned, but that hardly made it a non-starter. In past years, the company has gotten what it wanted more often than not, thanks to powerful friends like Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott. This is the beauty of doing business in a state that allows corporations, even public utilities, to supply unlimited campaign donations to elected officials. Over the years, Dominion’s contributions to Republican Kilgore nearly match its contributions to Democrat Saslaw. Most other General Assembly members get contributions from Dominion, too, helping to cement bipartisan support for the company’s priorities.
As the patrons of this year’s money bill, Saslaw and Kilgore should have been able to deliver enough votes from members of both parties to ensure a profitable outcome for their biggest campaign donor. They were not counting on the governor poking holes in the plan.
Dominion’s beating this year grew from seeds it sowed in 2021. That year, Dominion made a bad bet on Democrat Terry MacAuliffe to win the governorship, secretly funding a dark money group to run ads attacking Youngkin.
This year, Youngkin took his revenge. As a Wall Street guy himself, he knows how to hit a corporation where it hurts.
Youngkin forced Dominion to accept changes to the bill that increase the company’s return on equity modestly (and only temporarily), but take away other avenues of profit. Adding insult to injury, the General Assembly also adopted the pro-consumer legislation that allows the SCC to set “fair and reasonable” rates in the future.
Dominion declared itself satisfied with the result, but Wall Street judged otherwise. The company’s stock, which had started to rally in January, reached a ten-year low this spring.
Aside from punishing Dominion, the governor achieved none of his energy goals in the legislative session. Rolling back the VCEA, exiting RGGI through legislation, reversing the Clean Car Standard — none of that happened. And as long as the Democrats keep control of at least one chamber in the General Assembly in this fall’s election, none of that is likely to happen.
So Dominion’s IRP violates Virginia’s laws and the public’s trust (such as it is), makes a mockery of its own climate plan and proposes “solutions” that will drive up both costs and carbon emissions. As a plan, it can’t be taken seriously.
All that, however, is beside the point. It makes the governor happy. And what makes the governor happy, Dominion hopes, will make its shareholders happy.
That assumes the shareholders don’t care about climate change, or that they hold values that are as malleable as those of Dominion CEO Bob Blue and the rest of the company’s leadership.
Climate change? What climate change?
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