The South Carolina Office of Regulatory Staff, whose stated mission is to represent South Carolinians in utility matters before the Public Service Commission, has hired a lawyer who had previously represented Dominion Energy, a major gas and electric utility in the state.
The attorney, Benjamin Mustian of the firm Willoughby & Hoefer, represented Dominion in its solar avoided cost docket, a proceeding in which the utility singled out solar facilities and proposed offering them some of the lowest known payments in the nation. Mustian had worked for the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) from 2004 to 2006 before leaving for Willoughby & Hoefer, where he spent more than a decade representing utilities. Willoughby & Hoefer was a long-time law firm for SCANA, which was later purchased by Dominion, as the VC Summer nuclear project unraveled.
“ORS hired Ben because he’s a good attorney with over 16 years of experience in public utility law,” ORS Executive Director Nanette Edwards told the Energy and Policy Institute. “Ben previously worked at ORS and knows the people here and the type of work we do. He’s not working on anything related to Dominion at this time, nor do we expect him to for at least the next 12 months, if not longer.”
ORS has been scrutinized in recent years for its inability to protect South Carolina ratepayers as the VC Summer nuclear construction project failed, leaving customers on the hook for billions. The utility-backed Base Load Review Act essentially eliminated ORS’ ability to hold utilities accountable for their promises on VC Summer. Lawmakers revamped ORS’ mission in 2018, putting greater emphasis on its watchdog role on behalf of ratepayers. The hiring of an ex-utility lawyer to be a utility watchdog raises new questions about ORS’ adherence to its updated mission.
In August 2019, the South Carolina Public Service Commission (PSC) came under fire for hiring a consultant, Pegasus Global Holdings, to work on solar issues. Pegasus had deep ties to Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, which seemed at odds with a requirement from the Energy Freedom Act that the consultant be a “qualified independent third party.” The PSC later reversed its decision and fired Pegasus after the Charleston Post and Courier reported the apparent conflict of interest.
ORS has previously been the subject of criticism for personnel decisions after Edwards hired the prior Executive Director, Dukes Scott, on contract for $4,000 per month after he was fired for failing to protect South Carolinians from VC Summer-related rate hikes. Scott’s contract ended after The State published that story
Dominion’s anti-solar stances raise ire
Since entering South Carolina in early 2019 and promising $1,000 checks that never arrived, Dominion’s tenure as an electric utility in the state has been hallmarked by controversy. The utility’s rate hike stalled after coming under intense pressure from Governor McMaster. The PSC rejected Dominion’s long-range plan for being too coal-heavy and hostile to clean energy. Dominion proposed some of the lowest payments for large-scale solar projects in the nation, and it most recently attempted to eliminate net metering. Net metering is a rate structure that compensates customers for the electricity, usually from rooftop solar, that they sell to other customers via the electric grid.
In late December 2020, Dominion proposed raising solar customers’ basic service charge to $19.50 per month, compared to non-solar customers who pay $9 per month. The utility has also proposed a monthly “solar subscription fee,” which would add another $5.40 per kilowatt (kW). Together, the two charges could cost the average solar homeowner more than $750 per year, according to an article from PV Magazine.
Similar fees in other jurisdictions have been struck down by regulators or courts. Kansas’ Evergy targeted solar customers in 2018 with a demand charge which was later struck down by the Kansas Supreme Court. The Michigan Public Service Commission (PSC) rejected DTE’s attempt to charge monthly per-kW fees, saying that the utility “relied on the distribution revenue deficiency and not on any cost to serve”. The Commission said DTE “based the charge on the size of the customer’s system rather than the customer’s actual usage,” which was evidence of its failure to use an industry-accepted cost-of-service methodology when setting rates.
South Carolina advocates feared, as far back as the 2018 SCANA-Dominion merger, that Dominion would oppose the growing solar industry in the state, as it had in Virginia.
“Dominion has not proven that they would embrace what South Carolinians most need: aggressive energy efficiency and demand-side management and […] affordable renewables such as solar and wind,” Sara Barczak, then the regional advocacy director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said at the time.
Criticism of Dominion has not been confined to solar advocates. A large industrial customer, Bridgestone, filed a complaint arguing that Dominion was slow-walking renewable energy and blocking the tire manufacturer’s ability to use a $2.7 million solar project on its facility in Aiken County.
Header image source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission