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This article was produced in partnership with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Across the country, electric utilities have worked the levers of power to win favorable treatment from state policymakers.

This week, a Richmond Times-Dispatch and ProPublica investigation found that Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest public utility, successfully lobbied to reshape a major climate bill to cover its massive offshore wind project. The move shifted risk from the company’s shareholders to its ratepayers. As a result of the legislation, a typical residential customer’s bill is projected to increase by nearly $30 per month over the next decade.

Dominion says its wind project is necessary to meet the state’s new renewable energy goals. The utility’s lobbying success underscores its ability to work through the legislative process in Richmond, where special interests have taken on outsized roles in policymaking.

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Elsewhere, utilities have gone much further, crossing the line into potentially criminal behavior.

In Illinois, the largest electric utility acknowledged in July it gave jobs and money to associates of the state House speaker in return for favorable legislation, according to a deferred prosecution agreement with the company in federal court.

In Ohio, a power company allegedly funneled $60 million into a slush fund for a legislative leader in exchange for his backing of a bailout of two nuclear plants. The utility has not been charged, but the elected official now faces a racketeering charge in what prosecutors said was “likely the largest bribery,

Students of energy policy have long been familiar with the cry from activists: Government shouldn’t pick the winners and losers.

But the environmental movement, albeit with good intentions, is quite often guilty of that. Collectively, the environmentalists have told the electric utility industry, with varying degrees of vehemence, “We want wind and solar.”

As an afterthought, some environmentalists have acknowledged that there are other options, most notably nuclear and improved storage, and there is the possibility of new technologies or huge improvements in the known ones.

These deserve a hearing in the great sea change now taking place in electricity production.

Overselling Alternatives

Electric utilities want to reduce and end carbon emissions. But right now, they’re struggling with the overselling of alternatives when they don’t have enough essential backup in the form of storage. They also have the huge imperative of maintaining service — in lay terms, keeping the lights on.

CPS Energy
CMS
, San Antonio’s municipally owned electric and gas utility with over 860,000 electric and 358,000 gas customers, is putting its best big green foot forward, but wants to avoid being trapped into rigidity.

To that end, CPS Energy has canvassed the world, seeking ideas that will best deliver 500 MWe of new technology, 900 MWe of solar power and 50 MWe of storage. The new technology includes solutions for generation, conservation, and what the utility calls “firming,” which is backup for electricity generated from sun and wind.

In response to its July request for information (RFI), CPS Energy has received nearly 200 expressions of interest from around the world. That enthusiastic response affirmed the mantra of

This Tuesday marked 67 days of darkness for Kenneth Parson. He fell behind on his utility bills in the spring — and his lights went off, and stayed off, starting at the end of July.

No power meant no refrigerator, so Parson, a 62-year-old with diabetes in Griffin, Ga., had no choice but to store his temperature-sensitive insulin on ice in a small cooler. He didn’t have an easy way to cook at home, either, so his wife, Cheryl, took to preparing some meals for him in a neighbor’s kitchen.

In those first few days after they lost electricity, Cheryl had pleaded on Parson’s behalf with city officials who manage their local utilities, hoping she might change their minds in the middle of a pandemic that has left families nationwide struggling to cover their once-manageable costs of living.

“They said they couldn’t do nothing for him,” lamented Cheryl, 65, who lives apart from her husband but remains married and helps him manage his health conditions. “It peeved me off.”

The worst economic crisis in more than a generation has thrust potentially millions of Americans across the country into a similar, sudden peril: Cash-strapped, and in some cases still unemployed, they have fallen far behind on their electricity, water and gas bills, staring down the prospect of potential utility shut-offs and fast-growing debts they may never be able to repay.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many states acted quickly to ensure their residents would not lose their power or other utilities if their jobs or wages were slashed. Now, however, only 21 states and the District of Columbia still have such disconnection bans in place.

That leaves roughly 179 million Americans at risk of losing service even as the economy continues sputtering, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors’

A two-week hearing starting Tuesday before the Utah Public Service Commission could result in a “make-or-break” ruling for the rooftop solar industry in one of the nation’s sunniest states.



(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) A technician installs solar panels on top of a home in Salt Lake City in 2016. The Utah Public Service Commission is beginning a two-week hearing that likely will determine the future of rooftop solar in Utah because it will decide the value of the credits solar-users receive in selling excess power to the state's regulated electric utility, Rocky Mountain Power.


© Chris Detrick
(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) A technician installs solar panels on top of a home in Salt Lake City in 2016. The Utah Public Service Commission is beginning a two-week hearing that likely will determine the future of rooftop solar in Utah because it will decide the value of the credits solar-users receive in selling excess power to the state’s regulated electric utility, Rocky Mountain Power.

The three-member PSC panel is weighing competing proposals for the amount Utah electrical-utility customers are to be credited for excess solar power they export into the grid for their neighbors to use.

Rocky Mountain Power, Utah’s largest utility, is seeking an 84% reduction, while solar advocates are pressing for an increase over the current export credit of 9.2 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), or 90% of the utility’s average residential retail rate.

The utility’s proposal ignores numerous benefits “distributed” power generation provides the utility in addition to avoided fuel costs, such as reduced line losses and reduced grid upkeep, according to Kate Bowman of Utah Clean Energy.

Currently, 40,000 homes and businesses are pumping rooftop-generated power into the RMP grid. That’s 2% of the utility’s customers, indicating there is plenty of opportunity for growth in a business sector that employs 7,000 people in Utah, Bowman said.

“If Rocky Mountain Power’s proposal is approved, it sends a strong signal to prospective solar customers that their energy exported to the grid is essentially worthless,” she said. “It would take up to 25 years, potentially longer, to pay back the upfront investment in solar panels. And that means many solar customers will never realize any