Ratepayer advocates seek protections in offshore wind case

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — State regulators considering whether to approve Dominion Energy Virginia's plans for a nearly $10 billion offshore wind farm should implement protections to shield customers from possible cost overruns and other project risks, ratepayer advocates testified Tuesday.

No party to the proceeding is asking that the State Corporation Commission reject outright the planned 176-turbine project off the coast of Virginia Beach, which the company says will be the country's largest. But attorneys representing the utility's customers and environmental groups have sought to make the case that because of the project's enormous cost and complexity, commissioners should consider protections like a cost cap or independent monitor.

“Let's be honest — this is a $9.65B construction project where we will be digging 176 holes in the middle of the ocean. There are risks,” said Carrie Grundmann, an attorney representing Walmart in the proceedings.

The SCC heard hours of testimony and cross-examination Tuesday at the start of a multiday evidentiary hearing. Dominion, which already has a two-turbine pilot project up and running, filed an application with the commission in November seeking approval and cost recovery for the commercial-scale project. It's part of an ongoing shift in the company's generation mix toward a greater proportion of renewables.

Attorneys representing Dominion said Tuesday that the utility has met all statutory requirements for approval of the project, which has drawn broad support from local officials, policymakers, business groups and trade unions.

The project will “propel Virginia to the head of the race towards a clean energy future,” creating jobs and positioning the state as a leader in the burgeoning offshore wind industry, said Vishwa Link, an attorney from the law firm McGuireWoods representing the company.

Dominion is urging the commission to approve a proposed agreement it reached with several other parties to the proceeding — the Sierra Club, Nansemond Indian Nation and corporation commission staff — which was unveiled in a recent filing.

The proposed stipulation agreement says no construction costs in excess of $9.65 billion would be approved in connection with the pending proceeding; anything above that would require separate approval. It includes reporting requirements about the project's performance and reporting requirements should the project's timeline or cost estimates change.

But attorneys for several parties that have not signed on to the proposed agreement urged the commissioners Tuesday to consider other protections.

Meade Browder, from the Office of the Attorney General's Division of Consumer Counsel, said the proposed agreement offered little more than Dominion’s initial position.

The wind farm, he said, will be the most costly single project undertaken by any regulated utility in the country, with the exception of Southern Company's Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, which has faced lengthy delays and cost overruns.

Dominion's offshore wind project is also the country's only one in development that's owned and operated by a vertically integrated monopoly utility, he said, putting Dominion's captive ratepayers uniquely at risk.

In previously filed testimony, an expert witness for the AG's office has recommended required periodic status reports and a cost cap.

Clean Virginia, a clean energy and campaign finance reform advocacy group founded to counter Dominion's influence at the statehouse, has also recommended a cost cap in previously filed testimony. And an expert for the group called for an independent monitor to provide additional oversight.

William Reisinger, an attorney representing Clean Virginia, said Tuesday that evidence in the case shows the project would result in one of the largest rate increases in recent history — at least $14.21 a month for a typical residential customer once the project begins commercial operation.

“And this estimate is a best-case scenario. It assumes no cost overruns, no delays, no accidents, no force majeure-triggering events,” he said.

Attorneys raised questions during cross-examination of Dominion executives that highlighted other projects of the utility or its holding company, Dominion Energy, that faced delays or cost overruns, including the now-canceled Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The price tag of that natural gas pipeline swelled by several billion dollars before it was scrapped in July 2020.

About $300-$400 million has been spent on the wind farm so far, according to testimony Tuesday from Mark Mitchell, Dominion Energy's senior vice president for project construction.

The wind farm would help Dominion meet the goals of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping overhaul of the state’s energy policy enacted by Democrats that included a number of renewable energy mandates intended to help address the threats of climate change. The project will also help the company meet its own pledge to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Commissioners Jehmal Hudson and Judith Williams Jagdmann heard Tuesday’s testimony. The commission is down one member since the GOP-controlled House let ex-commissioner Angela Navarro’s appointment expire earlier this year. The divided General Assembly has not filled the spot.

Testimony is to continue Wednesday. A commission ruling is expected by August. A separate federal review process for the project is also underway.