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The SCC gave the utility 90 days to correct and refile an integrated resource plan based on PJM forecasts.

Story updated with comment from Dominion Energy.

Virginia utility regulators took the unprecedented action Friday of ordering Dominion Energy to totally redo a long-term energy plan it submitted for approval in May. The 231-page forecast covered details such as customer base and power-supply build-out from 2019 to 2033.

“The commission finds, based on the record of this proceeding and applicable statutes, that the Company has failed to establish its 2018 IRP, as currently filed, is reasonable and in the public interest,” commissioners said.

Dominion has 90 days to refile a corrected version of its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, the State Corporation Commission (SCC) wrote in a 10-page decision. The changes have potential ripple effects on the region’s clean energy transition. Here are a few takeaways based on reactions from critics of the utility reached late Friday afternoon: 

The commission’s rejection is a “big deal”

The commission has never before rejected a Dominion plan as insufficient, according to Will Cleveland, an attorney with a Charlottesville advocacy group that has consistently challenged Dominion’s plans. “This is a big deal, especially if you’re super-duper wonky about utility planning.”

Utility regulators nationwide rarely reject such plans, noted Dan Bakal, director of electric power programs for Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit that works with investors and companies on sustainability issues. “I take a national view of these things for my job, and from my standpoint it is very unusual to have an IRP rejected outright like this.”

Bakal Friday’s decision is also a good sign that Virginia regulators are not OK with being a rubber stamp for the state’s largest utility. “This ruling means that the State Corporation Commission is doing its job by adequately scrutinizing Dominion’s plans and raising concerns about its assumptions and estimates,” Bakal said. “Ratepayers and customers should feel good that the SCC is doing its job and not just accepting the proposal put forward.”

Dominion’s forecasting method is flawed

Critics said the decision validates something they have been saying for years: that Dominion’s energy forecasts are not credible.

“The main takeaway is that the commission has confirmed that Dominion’s planning methodology is fundamentally flawed,” said Cleveland, of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We have no legitimate picture of our energy future because Dominion is incapable of presenting it in a credible way.”

Brianna Esteves, a state policy associate for Ceres, said she was heartened that the SCC specifically directed Dominion to use PJM Interconnection figures when revisiting its electricity load figures. “Load growth laid out by PJM is lower, actually 50 percent lower, than what Dominion presented for the planning period,” Esteves said.

PJM is the regional transmission entity that sets Dominion’s capacity obligation. It coordinates the movement of electricity in 13 mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states.

Esteves also noted that commissioners directed Dominion to fill in a missing blank in the IRP and account for the impact of energy efficiency in its load forecast. It’s crucial because the sweeping Grid Transformation and Security Act passed this year by the Virginia Legislature calls on utilities to invest $870 million in energy efficiency over the next decade.

The rejection raises questions Atlantic Coast Pipeline

For the last three years, Dominion has told federal regulators the natural gas pipeline is necessary because its demand for power keeps growing, Cleveland said. In tandem, the utility’s plan called for continuing to build gas-fired power plants.

“With this ruling, any claim that Dominion makes about needing a pipeline to serve future natural gas plants in Virginia falls apart,” he said. “It should all be discounted because the commission just said it has no merit.”

Dominion has temporarily halted construction on the pipeline because of a court order. If completed, it would bisect Virginia on its 600-mile path from West Virginia to North Carolina.

“Dominion so clearly missed the mark they have to go back and start over,” Cleveland said. “Nobody knows what that second bite at the apple will look like. But transparency is what’s important for Virginia customers.”

Update: After publication of this story, Dominion Energy spokesman David Botkins issued the following statement: “Friday’s SCC order requires the company to make certain changes to the input assumptions to the original IRP filed on May 1. While we disagree with some of the changed inputs, we will make the required changes within the required 90 day schedule. We look forward to further demonstrating the benefits of grid transformation, renewable energy, and energy efficiency in combination with our natural gas investments.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press.