The Bulletin

Eight Virginia groups join request for Federal Trade Commission to investigate electric utility industry

By: - May 19, 2022 2:01 pm

An electrical substation near Imboden, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Eight Virginia organizations have joined more than 230 consumer, environmental and public interest groups in asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate electric industry practices that they say “impede renewable energy competition and harm consumer protection.” 

“Today, abusive utility practices are leading to increased electricity rates, obstruction of clean energy competitors in the face of climate change, and utility interference in democratic processes,” wrote the petitioners in their May 18 request. “The urgency for a federal investigation of utility companies’ unfair competitive and anti-democratic practices at this time cannot be overstated.” 

The petitioners are led by Solar United Neighbors, the Energy and Policy Institute, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Center for Biological Diversity and Open Markets Institute.

Virginia organizations joining as signatories include Clean Virginia, Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, Environment Virginia, Environment Virginia Research and Policy Center, Sierra Club Falls of the James, Solar United Neighbors Virginia, Sustainable Roanoke and the Virginia Youth Climate Cooperative. 

The petitioners levy two overarching charges against the electric utility industry. 

First, they say the industry has engaged in unfair competitive acts and mergers that aim to protect utilities’ assets and market monopolies by obstructing the deployment of clean energy.

Second, they say the industry has engaged in unfair and deceptive acts harming consumers, including “corrupt dealings, bribery, fraud and voting interference to pass legislation benefiting utilities,” “clandestine election spending” and astroturf campaigns. 

Among examples of astroturfing offered by the groups are allegations that industry players were involved in a campaign to send bogus emails to South Carolina lawmakers in support of a 2019 merger between Dominion Energy, which is headquartered in Richmond and operates Virginia’s largest electric utility, and SCANA Corporation. 

Asked about the petition, Dominion spokesperson Craig Carper said that while the company had “not seen this petition, we are proud of the reliable service we provide, our leading clean energy portfolio our extensive customer assistance programs, and our competitive rates.” 

Teresa Hall, a spokesperson for Virginia’s second-largest electric utility, Appalachian Power, said that while the utility was still reviewing the document, “I think we have a strong record of doing what’s right and in the best interest of customers with regard to renewable energy. Our work with the Virginia Clean Economy Act is just one example of that commitment.” 

Jean Su, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email that the petition is a “general request” to the Federal Trade Commission and that the FTC has the discretion to decide if it wants to take up the investigation. 

The last major FTC investigation of the electric utility industry occurred almost a century ago, between 1928 and 1935, and led to the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, a sweeping law that gave the federal government the power to break up and regulate the industry. The law was repealed in 2005.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.