Bill streamlining “undergrounding” power lines passes, raises questions about influence of utility companies

BY DAMIAN HONDARES
STAFF WRITER
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

A bill that declares utility projects moving certain power lines underground to be “in the public interest” passed the House by 92-4, but the legislation has raised questions about the power of utility companies in the General Assembly.

SB 1473, a bill introduced by Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, regards projects to replace unreliable overhead power lines — specifically, those lines that have had an average of at least nine unplanned outages per mile in the past 10 years. It states that the replacement of such lines is in the public interest, a criteria that a utility project must meet for approval by the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

Ken Schrad, a spokesman for the commission, said that the commission oversaw rates, terms and conditions of service for electric companies like Dominion Virginia Power.

“If they need a rate increase, if they want to build a power plant, if they want to turn above-ground lines into underground lines, they come to the commission,” Schrad said. “Because that has an impact on the cost to ratepayers.”

But under SB 1473, the commission will be directed to consider the costs of “undergrounding” projects to have been “reasonably and prudently incurred,” though the bill makes clear that this is a “rebuttable presumption.”

David Botkins, director of media relations and communications for Dominion, said that the bill would benefit consumers.

“By putting these lines underground, it allows for a much more timely restoration in a large-scale weather event,” Botkins said. “It’s a great preventative measure to save customers money in the long run, because resources won’t be tied up in the individual outage situations.”

The legislation passed the Senate by a vote of 37-3 on Feb. 2 before passing in the House. It now awaits a signature from Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has until midnight on March 27 to make his decision.

Saslaw, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, said on Twitter that the bill would “help keep the power on for thousands of Virginians.”

But Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, expressed concern with the costs of moving the lines underground. He was one of four senators who voted against the bill.

“I read at least one review stating that the under-grounding project would only cost $200 million but approximately $600 million would be charged to ratepayers over several years,” Petersen said in an email. “That’s too much.”

Petersen said he had broader concerns with the influence of utility companies in the General Assembly.

“The public utilities have far too much influence in Richmond,” Petersen said. “Every single piece of significant energy legislation is initiated by Dominion, which is a for-profit company. No other private company has that influence.”

Petersen was particularly concerned with political donations. He said that public service companies like Dominion should be banned from donating to state officials who are supposed to be regulating them.

Saslaw, who patroned SB 1473, received $25,000 from Dominion for his 2016 re-election campaign, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Saslaw for Senate — the senator’s re-election committee — received $12,500 from the company on Jan. 11, 2016, and another $12,500 on June 2, 2016. Saslaw has received $298,008 from the company for his re-election bids over the course of his legislative career.

Botkins denied that there was any correlation between the donations and Saslaw’s decision to patron the legislation.

“The undergrounding legislation passed on a 37-3 vote in the Senate and 92-4 in the House,” Botkins said in an email. “It had near unanimous bi-partisan support. Any legislator could have patroned that bill and been praised for it. It’s great public policy.”

He said that the company had a standard set of protocols for determining political donations.

“We have a political action committee made up of employees just like other companies across the state,” Botkins said. “And employees make the decision if they want to contribute to the fund. There’s a board that allocates campaign contributions and we allocate to both sides of the aisle.”

Petersen said that the donations made by Dominion “speak for themselves.”

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