by: Oliver Mendoza
This article was re-printed with permission from RVA Magazine.
With the current divisions between political ideologies in America, the advent of a group like the Virginia Energy Reform Coalition (VERC) can be like a breath of fresh air. VERC is composed of several Virginia organizations of surprisingly varied political stances who have come together to try and put an end to the monopoly Dominion Energy has on Virginia’s electrical supply.
In 1999, Virginia attempted to deregulate the energy market and failed. Now 20 years later, we are seeing groups like the progressive Virginia Poverty Law Center teaming up with the likes of Ken Cuccinelli’s FreedomWorks Foundation to help create a competitive free market for energy in Virginia.
VERC consists of nine different organizations in all: Appalachian Voices, Clean Virginia, Earth Stewardship Alliance, FreedomWorks, Piedmont Environmental Council, R Street Institute, Reason Foundation, Virginia Institute for Public Policy, and Virginia Poverty Law Center.
Some of these groups are advocates for clean energy and clean government. Brennan Gilmore, the Executive Director at Clean Virginia, said that there have been a series of oversteps by Dominion that led to consumers dealing with higher prices and businesses not being able to compete in the commonwealth’s large energy market.
“People across the political spectrum have reacted in a very strong way,” said Gilmore. “It was a testament to just how far these utilities have abused their monopolies that allowed for this type of unprecedented coalition to be built.”
Though some of the groups may clash over other political issues, they agree on the topic at hand: that a free, competitive energy market would benefit all parties.
“I realized that working with folks who have different ideologies with you is actually pretty easy when you’re headed for the same goal,” said Lynn Taylor, the President of Virginia Institute for Public Policy (VIPP). Taylor pointed out that in 2018, according to an article in USA Today, Virginia had the eighth-highest electrical utility bills in the country. According to Taylor, if utilities were allowed to compete for customers, consumers and businesses would have options on the price they pay for electricity, ideally leading to lower prices.
“This is an area where I think transparency does not have a party, and doing the right thing and creating fairness in the system does not have a party,” said Dana Wiggins, director of Outreach and Consumer Advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC). VPLC advocates for low-income Virginians, and adds a little more depth and diversity to the VERC.
According to Wiggins, the VPLC has put forth a proposal for a program to help low-income Virginians by implementing energy efficiency measures. Under VPLC’s plan, any Virginians paying more than 6 percent of their income towards electric bills would qualify for a program to cap their payments at 6 percent.
While a group like the VPLC might seem unlikely to make an alliance with high-profile Republican and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, this isn’t the first time the two have worked together. In 2017, Cuccinelli filed a legal brief on behalf of the VPLC, who were then challenging a law that had locked in Dominion and Appalachian Power Co.’s rates for five years to protect the utilities from costs associated with Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Clearly the old saying really is true: politics makes strange bedfellows. But for the leaders of the organizations making up the VERC, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “In a time when politics and policy seems pretty hopelessly divided, it’s actually been really refreshing to cross that ideological threshold,” said Gilmore.
Top photo by Marco Sanchez, courtesy of Piedmont Environmental Council