Doing the Electric Slide

There are few topics more complicated than electricity regulation.  There are also few subjects which require more government “sunshine.”  Otherwise, consumers are helpless before the ability of a monopolistic utility to raise prices (and its profits) literally at will. 
One of the great Democrats of the last century — State Senator Henry Howell of Norfolk — got his start by taking on the utilities.  His slogan?  “Keep the big boys honest.”
Ten years ago, it was predicted that the electricity market would de-regulate, allowing consumers to select the best provider for their homes and businesses.  That movement flopped.  In fact, California literally “lost power” in the wake of deregulation.  It solved that problem in a novel way — its citizens learned to use less power in their daily lives (and today its kwH per person ration is the lowest in the U.S.).
Virginia also passed a deregulation statute in 1999.  That fizzled as no new providers entered the market. 
In 2007, the General Assembly is ending deregulation.  But its proposed solution (SB 1416) does little for Virginia consumers.  Instead, it permits Dominion to “lock in” profits at pre-determined levels which are intentionally inexplicable to the average voter (or average legislator).   Read the bill yourself if you don’t believe me. 
I’m not smart enough to know whether the benchmarks are reasonable but I do know this — it is not the job of the Assembly to set profit levels for a privately-owned company.
There is a better alternative.  Prior to deregulation, Virginia used a “cost-based” regulation method, where the utility presents its costs to the State Corporation Commission for approval.  The independent Commission evaluated the costs and projected profits and compares them with other states.  They then set the rates for Virginia consumers. 
Why didn’t anyone fight this 35-page bill?  Who has the time to even read it!
Virginia needs a consumer watchdog in Richmond to protect ordinary rate payers.  (It should be the Attorney General — but that’s another story).   Many states, especially those in the West where water and electricity are scarce, have a state consumer advocate monitoring these issues.  Without some professional help in Richmond, Virginia consumers are literally at the mercy of the powerful utility lobby.


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