State stonewalls public comment on proposed Dominion rate hike

November 10, 2020

Investigative Reports

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V.C. Summer Nuclear Station

By RICK BRUNDRETT

Dominion Energy electric customers in South Carolina are angry.

They were promised a rate cut following the 2017 collapse of the $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear project. But Virginia-based Dominion now wants a significant rate hike.

And the state panel that will decide whether to approve the nearly 8% rate hike has quietly made it difficult for customers to publicly voice their concerns, an investigation by The Nerve found.

The S.C. Public Service Commission on Oct. 1 scheduled three public hearings for this week, to be held virtually because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The first hearing was held Monday at 6 p.m.; the other two are scheduled for the same time today and Thursday.

But the commission allowed Dominion up to Oct. 23 to provide notices of the hearings to its approximate 753,000 customers in 24 counties in the central and southern parts of the state.

That effectively gave many customers who want to speak at the hearings as little as 16 days to sign up and prepare to comment on Dominion’s 274-page proposal, including exhibits. As of late Monday afternoon, about 200 individuals – a fraction of 1% of the total number of customers – had registered to testify, according to a registration list provided by the PSC to The Nerve.

The seven PSC members are elected by state lawmakers and make at least $132,071 annually.

In written responses last week to The Nerve, PSC spokesman Rob Bockman said the agency on Oct. 5 began publicizing the hearing schedule to media outlets statewide and through the agency’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, respectively.

The schedule also was posted on the agency’s website in a release dated Oct 7. By law, the PSC had to give at least 30 days’ notice of the hearings.

Yet when asked how early Dominion customers began registering to speak at this week’s hearings, Bockman replied, “We don’t keep track of which dates consumers call in, only the dates for which they register.” Individuals had until Monday to register for the hearings.

Those allowed to speak are limited to a maximum three minutes. All testimony is to be given under oath.

The Nerve also asked Bockman why the commission waited until Oct. 1 to schedule the hearings, given that Dominion submitted its formal application for the rate hike to the PSC on Aug. 14. The commission had scheduled regular or special business meetings on Aug. 18, Aug. 26, Aug, 31, Sept. 2, Sept. 9, Sept. 16 and Sept. 22, agency records show.

In a written response, Bockman said only the commission had “no comment on Commission business meeting agendas.”

State lawmakers not only elect the seven-member commission, which sets utility rates for investor-owned electric and gas utilities, but they also control the nomination of PSC candidates through a 10-member panel known as the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee, or PURC for short.

As The Nerve has previously revealed, the PURC exerts considerable control over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina.

The PSC for years routinely approved utility rate increases for South Carolina Electric & Gas customers to build two nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer plant in Fairfield County. The nine rate hikes from 2009 through 2016 were allowed under a 2007 state law that the Legislature quietly approved.

In response to the collapse of the project, lawmakers in 2018 temporarily lowered SCE&G monthly bills by 15%, which the PSC later authorized in approving Dominion’s 2019 takeover of SCE&G. Dominion customers, however, will continue paying off V.C. Summer costs for many years; as of next year, the total estimated balance will be $1.87 billion, according to the state Office of Regulatory Staff.

In a written response last week to The Nerve, ORS spokesman Ron Aiken said Dominion’s residential customers will continue paying $8.20 out of their monthly bills until 2039 for the project. The utility says it is not seeking to cover any V.C. Summer costs with its latest rate-increase request.

Dominion wants a 7.75% rate hike, which in its application said would generate an additional approximately $178 million. Average residential monthly bills would rise by $9.68, or 7.91%, to $131.99, according to a review by ORS.

The PSC notice for this week’s hearings repeats some of Dominion’s jargon-laden language in seeking the rate hike. For example, the notice says the utility hasn’t sought an increase for “base electric rates since 2012 exclusive of changes in the fuel component and the recovery of costs and revenues associated with demand side management and energy efficient programs and other rider-based charges.”

Dominion is scheduled to testify before the PSC in a public hearing on Jan. 5. Bockman said Dominion representatives will not be testifying at this week’s hearings.

Under state law, the commission has until Feb. 15 to issue its order. Dominion said it wants to impose the rate hike starting in March.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

 

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