June 18, 2008

Webb Picks the Wrong Arena

Sen. Jim Webb picked an odd way to express concerns about the suffering low-income Virginians will endure with higher electric bills.

Last week, Webb wrote the State Corporation Commission to object to Dominion Virginia Power's request to raise rates 18 percent. Dominion seeks this increase to cover higher fuel costs that it pays to generate electricity. It is a pass-through cost that is generally granted by the SCC as it simply covers fuel costs and does not factor in profit.

Other increases sought by electric companies, including the recent 23 percent increase filed by Appalachian Power Co., to cover the costs of complying with federal clean air standards, merit closer scrutiny by the SCC.

Virginians until recently have benefited from fairly cheap electric rates. But the billions of dollars spent on refitting coal- fired plants is having a tremendous impact on rates. So, too, is the rising cost of coal and natural gas to run the plants.

Webb is correct: The higher costs do hurt Virginians' budgets and are particularly hard on lower-income residents who are just scraping by. They already are grappling with their higher gas station and grocery bills.

But railing against fuel costs is an ineffective solution.

There are things Webb can do.

First off, he can work to add more money to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that grants states a block of money to assist lower-income families with electric bills.

He could also challenge state lawmakers to add to this pool. Virginia has been rather stingy in this regard, relying mostly on the generosity of utility companies and their ratepayers who donate to the fund.

Then, Webb could get to work in pushing harder for the U.S. Senate to enact a substantive and comprehensive energy package that moves this country off its reliance on fossil fuels and heavily pushes conservation.

It could, for example, include tax credits that spur homeowners to invest in energy-saving changes (new furnaces, air conditioners, windows, weather stripping).

Low electric bills, like $2-a-gallon gasoline, are history. Webb should look for ways to help Virginians and the nation adjust.

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