HEC backs off electricity rate cut, but looks ahead to new transparency measures

By Ryan Alessi

Coming changes in what Dominion Energy charges for wholesale electricity prompted the Harrisonburg Electric Commission to abandon a proposal to cut customers’ electricity rates. 

In July, commission members had discussed potentially approving the utility’s first rate cut in more than 40 years. But the five-member commission quashed the idea at its meeting Tuesday after Brian O’Dell, the HEC’s general manager, said Dominion has indicated wholesale power costs would rise. 

O’Dell had told the commission last month that it might be appropriate to lower customers’ electricity rates because the gap between what the utility had been spending less than anticipated to purchase wholesale power. But he also promised the commission he would follow up with Dominion to make sure there weren’t big changes coming that might force the commission to quickly reverse the rate cut. 

The Virginia Municipal Power Association, of which HEC is one of seven members, negotiates with Dominion Energy for wholesale power rates. O’Dell said since July, the association’s board has had a conference call and an in-person meeting with Dominion representatives. 

“I’ve got to say that there were some things there that we did not anticipate,” O’Dell told the commission Tuesday. “And I would say that the revenue we’re collecting now is probably going to be adequate and not considered an over-collection based on what we may be looking forward to.”

O’Dell didn’t elaborate on specific changes but told the commission the prudent move would be to stand pat. 

“Had I known then what I know now, we may not have gone down the path of the discussion of a rate reduction,” he said. “So I’m going to have to walk that one back for the time being.”

“I’m not the least bit surprised” by the news from Dominion, said commission member Maria Papadakis. 

Handling public comments 

Meanwhile, commissioners also took a first step toward establishing a procedure to allow for regular public comment. The HEC is city-owned and sends more than $5 million each year to Harrisonburg’s coffers. Its commission meetings — on the fourth Tuesday of each month — are open to the public and are governed by open-meetings laws. 

The commission hasn’t included a formal policy for handling public comments and doesn’t make its agendas public ahead of time like other local government entities, such as the city council. But the HEC has found itself in the spotlight several times over the last year, such as the interest among solar energy supporters in the HEC’s solar policies and controversy over the reappointment of one of the HEC’s former members last winter

The commission hashed out a rough concept for a new public comment policy, which members said they wanted to approve at the September HEC meeting. 

The policy would allow for 15 minutes of public comment near the start of each meeting. The HEC will ask members of the public to notify the utility ahead of time if they want to speak — but wouldn’t exclude someone from speaking if a person didn’t make such a request. HEC customers also would be given priority, several of the commission members said. 

Daphyne Thomas, the HEC’s chair, also said she’d like to see the agenda publicly posted so community members would know if there’s a topic they’d want to address.

“This is part of a bigger picture of transparency,” Papadakis added. “If we’re going to start bundling these things, our agenda actually should be publicly posted.” 

Finalizing that policy will part of a packed agenda for the Sept. 24 HEC meeting, which will also include a discussion of ways the utility could encourage more pathways to solar energy in the community.

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