by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

Outside my office window, on Richmond’s western fringe, spring emerges like a sluggish dawn. The blanket of snow has been gradually pulled back on its earth bed, revealing life that stirs and rouses from its season of slumber.

Crocuses and snowdrops peek out. Expanding buds push parchment-like oak leaves downward, to the greening ground. Home robins are joined by their migrating cousins. Young squirrels and crows appear. Stepping outdoors, yesterday’s chilled winds are today’s moist breezes.

For those who’ve suffered a winter of discontent, the natural world is a refreshing antidote. The certainty of spring’s arrival — if not the exact date — is comforting in a world where uncertainties seem to spread like kudzu on a woodsy hillside.

In this column in the last two months, we’ve talked to you about an effort by your local electric cooperative and 11 others across the Commonwealth to suspend Virginia’s electric deregulation law. As we mentioned, the law was passed in 1999 in an effort to provide Virginia consumers with a choice of electric suppliers. There was widespread hope that choice would bring savings, as suppliers competed for your business, while your local utility — in your case, a cooperative — would continue to deliver the power to your home or business.

Five years in, though, there are no competitive suppliers, and thus there have been no savings for consumers. And we don’t believe there are likely to be any suppliers entering the state in the near future, or perhaps ever.

And the reason is because Virginia on average enjoys some of the lowest electric rates in the nation. In fact, of the 16 states that still have a deregulation law on their books, Virginia has the lowest average retail electric rates, according to information from the State Corporation Commission.

Virginia is also the only southeastern state among these 16, with all of our sisters from North Carolina to Louisiana continuing with the state regulatory method that for a century has generally served this nation’s consumers very well. As it happens, the states to our south also have rates lower than the national average. It’s no coincidence that the other 15 states that continue to pursue deregulation have rates that are generally above the national average. Their incentive in pursuing deregulation is to lower their rates. Virginia has no such incentive.

But, alas, our efforts fell short in this session of the General Assembly. Legislators want to give deregulation and retail competition more time to develop. And perhaps it will, and we hope that it does.

The reason we worked with a wide array of consumer and business groups in an effort to suspend the deregulation law was at the very heart of what we’re all about: We’re here to protect you and all of our member-consumers. As a cooperative, we’re set up to provide a service at cost to our members. Our only motivation is to provide you with this service — electricity — in the most reliable way possible, at the lowest cost possible. Period.

Fact is, retail deregulation of electricity has not worked in any corner of this great land, from California to Maine. We believe there are risks when retail consumers — including many of the rural residential and small business folks that we serve — are exposed in a few years to the open market, with its regular doses of price volatility. We believe, therefore, that it would be advisable for the Commonwealth to return rate-setting to the experts at the State Corporation Commission.

Yet despite the disappointment before the General Assembly, we will continue to be vigilant in watching out for the proverbial man and woman at the end of the line.

We recognize that such legislative disappointments are often as illusory and as fleeting as a bitter, snowy day in late March. Spring is still there, behind the biting winds. And we’ll be there, in your community, and if necessary at the State Capitol, working to serve you. It’s a promise we’ve kept for over three generations, as certain as the promise that spring is making right now, just outside your door. .  


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