Consumers Carry The Day
by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

This year’s gathering of the Virginia General Assembly was the so-called “short” session, the shortness being its duration of 45 days versus the 60 days that our state legislators normally gather in even-numbered years. The “shortness” certainly also applies to the state of the Commonwealth’s coffers, as well as to the lack of legislative consensus on a wide array of issues.

But in case you have not heard, the 2003 session was long on efforts to protect Virginia consumers, especially with regard to the restructuring and deregulation of the electric utility industry. In a yeoman effort, Manassas Del. Harry Parrish ignored special interests and others who advocated sailing forward into the uncertain seas of restructuring, and instead shepherded through both Houses a bill that gives a breather to the  process.

Delegate Harry Parrish--- His bill protects Virginia consumers.

As mentioned in last month’s editorial, this breather is welcome, and necessary. It should help to protect Virginia consumers from the uncertain reliability and potentially volatile pricing that would have occurred if the state’s large utilities had been allowed to transfer control over their transmission lines to a regional group that oversees the transmission of electricity for several states.

Now, under Del. Parrish’s bill, the State Corporation Commission (SCC) will study the impact on consumers of such transfers of control over transmission lines. Because, once such transfers take place, the state loses control over these transmission lines, since regulatory oversight then falls to the federal government, and away from the Commonwealth.

Del. Parrish’s bill gives the SCC the opportunity to ensure that consumers are not harmed in the process of these transfers, which are an ingredient in the effort to develop regional electricity markets and spur competition. Your electric cooperative leaders strongly supported Del. Parrish’s bill, because we are concerned that moving forward too quickly toward retail competition may end up costing consumers more than it ever saves them.

Virginia’s 13 local electric cooperatives and the 350,000 homeowners and business-owners we represent constitute one of the largest consumer groups in Virginia. Back when electric utility restructuring became a hot topic in the mid-’90s, we stated that we would support restructuring if — and only if — it offered opportunities for savings to our members, all of our members, including the hundreds of thousands of rural residential members served by electric cooperatives. We have been firm in this stance ever since.

While we are hopeful that, somewhere in the future, retail competition could offer savings for the average electricity user, we are concerned about the problems uncovered in other states that have restructured, and are mindful of the many states that have moved away from it in recent months. A cautious approach seems to us to be the right approach.

Despite opposition from some quarters, Del. Parrish’s bill passed both the House of Delegates and the Senate by wide margins, proving yet again that our state legislators of both political persuasions really do have the best interests of consumers at heart.

The bill will not allow any utility operating in Virginia to transfer control over its transmission lines to a regional entity before July 1, 2004, at the earliest. The gift of time that Del. Parrish and Virginia’s General Assembly have given to Virginia consumers should help ensure that, if we sail forward into the seas of restructuring, we’ll be better  able to provide protections to all those on board the ship.

You can be certain that your electric cooperative will continue to guard your interests zealously as and if restructuring moves forward. After all, you’re not just a consumer of electricity; you’re a member-owner of an electric cooperative.



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