Brennan Gilmore & Lynn Taylor: Charging toward energy reform in Virginia

July 27, 2019

ONE OF US was chief of staff for Tom Perriello and runs an environmental nonprofit. The other worked for the Koch brothers and facilitates a monthly meeting of Virginia conservative and libertarian activists. Needless to say, we do not exactly subscribe to the same political philosophies.

Here’s where we do agree: The energy sector in Virginia is broken.

An energy sector whose rules were written by monopoly utilities and their well-funded political allies has given us the 11th highest electricity bills in the nation when energy demand in Virginia is flat and energy itself is getting cheaper. It has kept businesses and families across the commonwealth from choosing their electricity provider. It has allowed Dominion Energy to run roughshod over property rights and plow ahead with a ratepayer-backed $7 billion gas pipeline without demonstrating any actual need for it. And it has stifled innovation and the deployment of cleaner, cheaper energy sources.

Virginia — including vast Dominion service territory in the Hampton Roads region — deserves better than this monopoly regulatory system designed to maximize profits for shareholders and greased by donations to politicians.

When faced with a problem this insidious, it is remarkable how quickly two opposing ideologies can find common ground.

The answer to this is simple: Give people a choice. Break up the monopolies, remove the barriers to competition, and remove the constraints preventing Virginia from leading the transition to a 21st century energy economy that is better for our bank accounts, our jobs and our environment.

No matter who they vote for, every Virginian should have the ability to choose their energy provider, just like they choose their car, phone provider, or grocery store. Currently, most Virginians who pay utility bills are stuck with one utility monopoly, and one with a track record of acting in bad faith to enrich shareholders on the backs of mostly unknowing ratepayers.

The core of our system’s rot is a skewed incentive system that allows utility profits to hinge on political gamesmanship rather than customer interest. A utility that both owns and operates the electrical grid has a conflict of interest that inhibits the development and deployment of the cost-effective energy resources of the future.

A utility earns a rate of return on infrastructure like wires and transformers, so it has a financial interest in huge infrastructure investments rather than resources owned or services provided by other entities — large-scale distributed energy storage systems, consumer-owned rooftop solar, or energy efficiency programs, for example — even though they are often cheaper.

Switching to a competitive market with performance-based rules and an independent grid operator will ensure energy providers only get rewarded for being the best on reliability, cost and customer satisfaction and that one monopoly’s special interests cannot hold customers captive.

Virginia’s potential to recharge our economy with 21st century energy is truly untapped. The Department of Energy ranks us a dismal 37th out of 50th for renewable energy production.

North Carolina has seven times as much installed solar as Virginia, and thousands of jobs in the fastest-growing energy sector along with it. On the other hand, Texas moved to a competitive market in the early 2000s and has since seen reduced energy bills, enhanced consumer choice and steady innovation. It is simple. When an energy market is competitive and monopolies are contained, the entire state benefits.

Luckily, this insidious problem is not beyond repair. Energy market reform may sound complex, but this issue is about Virginians paying their utility bills today and choosing the energy that will power their tomorrows. We want to build a statewide movement towards consumer choice and protection, a competitive and innovative economy, and a 21st century energy grid — and movements need people.

Candidates and legislators need to hear from their constituents and voters on this issue and demand that Virginia’s General Assembly advocate for hardworking people across the commonwealth paying their utility bills, not for utility giants whose political influence has allowed them to write the rules of a rigged game.

Take it from a political odd couple. When you take a chance to come together and reform something truly broken, it’s amazing what we can achieve.

Brennan Gilmore is executive director of Clean Virginia. Lynn Taylor is president and co-founder of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy. They are both members of the nonpartisan Virginia Energy Reform Coalition.

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