Rate hike would let Dominion cut customers’ power over “implied” threats

In August, Dominion Energy proposed a rate increase of almost 8 percent through an application to the SC Public Service Commission (PSC).

The PSC waited almost two months to schedule the hearing, and for almost three weeks later to notify the public. The notice itself was vague, with confusing language and missing important details.

Dominion is proposing more than a simple (and very large) rate hike. The company wants to charge customers for specific programs that should already be included in their operating cost, or shouldn’t be charges at all.

Most alarming are Dominion’s proposed changes to its overall “Terms and Conditions.” The company wants broad authority to arbitrarily turn off customers’ power, charge for special equipment, and force individual companies to pay up-front deposits.

When and how to exercise that authority would be almost entirely at Dominion’s discretion.

Below are some details about Dominion’s proposals, the impact they’ll have on customers – perhaps even ratepayers across the state – and what can be done to push back.  

Changes to the Terms and Conditions: Broad, Undefined Authority to Dominion

Dominion is requesting new authority to:

  • Turn off a customer’s power over “implied” threats:  Dominion would be able to shut off a customer’s power if the company decides that customer or a guest on their property has made “direct or implied threats” against a worker or the company itself.

There is no definition of what constitutes a threat, no process for determining whether a threat was made, and no designation of who at the company is responsible for making such decisions.

Absent a definition, almost anything could be deemed a threat: A frustrated social media post, a verbal altercation with a worker who appears unannounced on someone’s property (or even damages the property) or an emotional exchange with a representative during a power outage.

There is no explanation as to why turning off power is the right response to a threat … and no given process to restore a customer’s power.

  • Require a two-month deposit from struggling businesses: If Dominion believes that a new or current non-residential customer is experiencing “financial difficulties”, they can require a two-month deposit before starting or continuing to provide power. They can also require accelerated payment plans, letters of credit, and more.  

Paying more for power

  • To increase residential power bills by nearly 8%, mainly so that Dominion can recover the cost of infrastructure investment and increase the company’s profit margin. Dominion customers will also continue to pay for the failed V.C. Summer project, however those costs are not part of this request (but will likely be raised in a future rate hike).
  • To impose new fees and eliminate a tax credit that benefitted customers
  • Vegetation management: Dominion wants an additional $3.5 million per year to cut down trees, trim bushes and spray herbicide — often on private property.
  • Storm damage fee: Dominion will charge customers in advance for damage it believes could be caused by future storms, at a cost of $9.8 million every year for five years. The company will collect and retain the revenue even if there is no storm damage.
  • To discontinue a tax credit: Customers currently get a 3.07% discount on their power bills as part of a federal tax law, but Dominion wants to remove that credit. The company claims it will roll the savings into the regular rate but, practically speaking, there is no way to determine if that’s actually done.

It is up to the Public Service Commission to grant or deny Dominion the rate hike and Terms and Conditions changes. Private utilities are accountable to the PSC and their shareholders, not to their customers … and customers can’t hold the PSC itself accountable.  

Instead, the state legislature has 100 percent control over the entities that make up the utility regulation system, including: 1) the Public Service Commission, which sets electric rates, 2) the Public Utilities Review Committee, which nominates and supervises PSC commissioners, and 3) the Office of Regulatory Staff, charged with representing the public interest.

That puts only two people directly accountable to SC utility customers for their energy bills — the House member and Senator who represent them.

This model leaves little room for public accountability – and that’s by design. However, there is one avenue customers have. While lawmakers are prohibited from directly influencing regulators’ votes, state law allows them to testify before the PSC as a witness.

Section 58-3-142 affirms that lawmakers can testify as a witness before the PSC during ratemaking proceedings

The PSC is not accountable to individual ratepayers, but they are accountable to the members of the General Assembly. Legislators can testify before the PSC during next month’s hearings and relay their constituents’ concerns to the body. This is, at the very least, a core function of being an elected representative.   

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While these proposals only apply to Dominion customers, their approval could set a precedent for other utilities to use in the future, affecting even more ratepayers statewide. Until the regulatory monopoly is dissolved, customers will have no one to hold accountable for rising energy costs but their own lawmakers.

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