AP: Virginia GOP, big utilities back a costly green energy idea

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Virginia have maintained a go-slow approach to renewable energy for years, saying a conservative path has helped keep electricity costs under control as the state figures out how best to harness solar or wind power.

"We're going to take small steps and not large steps," said Del. Terry Kilgore, the GOP leader of the powerful House Commerce and Labor Committee, said at a recent news conference where Republicans touted their green energy record compared to other states.

But at the same news conference, GOP lawmakers said they want Virginia to be a leader in a kind of renewable energy system that requires massive construction projects with unknown costs and technical challenges. Large utilities like them, but environmentalists and some businesses are puzzled and worried.

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The Republican-led General Assembly is advancing legislation to make it easier for utilities to build pumped storage systems, powered by solar or wind energy, in Virginia's coalfield region. These systems use huge amounts of water as giant batteries, pumping it uphill and then letting it flow down to power turbines.

In Virginia, supporters say, the new systems could be built using abandoned coal mines or reservoirs in the state's economically depressed southwest corner.

"Difficult times require us to take opportunities that otherwise we wouldn't take," said Kilgore.

The legislation has near-unanimous support in both chambers and from the state's leading electric utilities. That includes Dominion Resources, which also is the biggest corporate donor to political campaigns in Virginia.

But much uncertainty remains. Nowhere in the United States has an underground coal mine been utilized as a pumped storage system, and technical as well as environmental challenges would have to be overcome.

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"I am not prepared to make a guess at what the cost of this facility will be," said Sen. Ben Chafin. He said state regulators would have to ensure each project's costs are reasonable.

That uncertainty has some businesses worried about rising electric bills.

"We're a little nervous about it," said Brett Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufacturing Association.

Supporters dismiss cost concerns as premature, saying the legislation only gets the ball rolling on potential projects. But electric rates are already a touchy subject in Virginia politics.

A 2015 law, backed by Dominion, bars regulators from lowering base rates — the majority of a customer's bill — for several years even in the event of excessive utility profits.

Dominion says its rates are not excessive, but regulators say its base rates give the company about $280 million a year more than is reasonable. That translates to about 5 percent extra on a typical residential customer's bill, according to one expert's calculations.

Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen said with potential excessive profits locked in, lawmakers should be weary of approving legislation that enables expensive new projects.

"We're going to keep adding to our customers' bills without even knowing what we're doing," Petersen said.

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