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Sep 19, 2023

The Dominion Energy–backed group Power for Tomorrow has re-emerged ahead of the June 20 primaries with ad campaigns backing incumbent lawmakers.

Power for Tomorrow refused to say how much it's spending, but it's currently running Facebook ads for a dozen candidates — all current or former lawmakers. It's also creating mailers and conducting polling in support of at least one Democrat: Sen. George Barker (D–Fairfax), whose challenger argues the ads prove he's an unreliable ally for consumers.

Dominion Energy is one of the biggest power players at the state capitol, giving candidates and parties more than $10 million since 2020.

It also has strong links with Power for Tomorrow, giving the group more than $800,000 in the last two years. Dominion's 2021 contributions made up nearly 30% of PFT's $2.8 million revenue that year, according to its tax filings.

In 2021, Power for Tomorrow spent heavily in Virginia on TV and Facebook ads warning consumers that proposals to deregulate the electrical grid would leave Virginia vulnerable to grid failure, a claim several experts said was misleading. The group's IRS filings said it spent $1.8 million in 2021 on advertising.

Its latest ads broadly credit certain lawmakers for saving ratepayers money by passing legislation this year giving state regulators more oversight over Dominion. The ads back candidates who’ve accepted contributions from the utility company, including Sens. Joe Morrissey (D–Richmond), Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax), Siobhan Dunnavant (R–Henrico) and Barker, as well as Dels. Delores McQuinn (D–Richmond), Buddy Fowler (R–Hanover) and Emily Brewer (R–Isle of Wight).

Several of the lawmakers supported Dominion's preferred legislation in the past, including a 2015 rate freeze that was widely opposed by consumer protection advocates. State regulators said in 2018 that the freeze, which has since been rescinded, allowed Dominion to collect more than $300 million in excess rates in 2017 alone. (Dominion argued that the freeze was necessary to update its infrastructure).

The latest PFT ads don't mention that this year's push for stricter oversight largely came from other lawmakers who’ve been more critical of Dominion, including Dels. Lee Ware (R–Powhatan) and Rip Sullivan (D–Fairfax). The proposal ultimately passed with broad, bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in April. The legislation takes effect July 1.

In an email, PFT spokesperson Gary Meltz called the ads a "nonpartisan education effort in support of sensible energy policy." He declined to say how much the group had spent on primary races.

Dominion Energy spokesperson Aaron Ruby said its contributions to PFT come from shareholders, rather than ratepayers. He said the company supports PFT's "educational efforts to promote bipartisan legislation that lowered consumer costs and strengthened regulatory oversight."

While the ads touting stricter regulations might seem inconsistent with the company's interests, Dominion is playing a delicate game on newly redrawn political maps, according to Shelby Green, a research fellow at the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog organization that has been critical of utilities’ political influence.

"Right now, winning elections may be more important to them than consistency," Green wrote in an email. "To win elections and exert influence, Dominion must preserve and acquire whatever relationships it can in this changing political environment."

Some primaries have pitted Dominion-backed incumbents against challengers supported by Clean Virginia, an anti-Dominion good governance group funded by investor Michael Bills.

In the case of at least one candidate — Surovell, who is running unopposed — both groups have posted Facebook ads and mailers praising the Democrat's work.

Other races have been more fraught. Those contests include Fairfax County school board member Stella Pekarsky's attempt to unseat Barker, one of the top Senate Democrats. Barker's largest donor this cycle is Dominion, according to the Virginia Public Access Project: $30,000 in the last year toward a total of approximately $72,000 across his political career.

Meanwhile, Pekarsky's campaign has been heavily financed by Clean Virginia and Bills’ wife, Sonija Smith — $113,000 and $50,000, respectively, in the first three months of 2023 alone.

PFT has also conducted polling in the district, according to screenshots obtained by VPM News, asking recipients to indicate how favorable their views are of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Clean Virginia and Dominion, as well as who they plan to support in the primary — Pekarsky, Barker or undecided.

In an interview, Pekarsky argued it was "ridiculous" to credit Barker for saving consumers money when he collected Dominion's contributions and voted in favor of the 2015 rate freeze that restricted state regulators’ ability to order utilities to return overcharges to customers.

"I think it's time to elect officials who care about our local families, who care about our working families, who care about the struggle," Pekarsky said. "Not elected officials who are in cahoots with these corporate interests."

In a statement, Barker called the attacks "insulting and patently misleading."

"While I’m proud to have voted to keep electric rates low — these mailers were neither sponsored nor coordinated with my campaign," he said.

Power for Tomorrow is also active in other states. In South Carolina, the group has authored articles criticizing a legislative push that would require utilities, including Dominion, to join a regional transmission organization in the wake of a punishing winter storm. It warned the move would lead to greater grid instability and outages — a similar claim to the one it previously made in Virginia in 2021.

Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at the Harvard Law School, said the claims were misleading.

"I don't think there's any evidence from that storm that RTOs are less reliable," Peskoe said in an interview. "That's always the argument that utilities make about whatever the issue is, whether it's Clean Air Act, whether it's renewable energy; whatever the thing is utilities don't want to do, they say reliability is going to be a problem."

Peskoe speculated that Dominion might ultimately seek to leave the RTO it belongs to in Virginia, a move that could reduce its competition and oversight from federal regulators. But Ruby, the spokesperson for the company, said it was a "proud member" of PJM, an RTO serving utilities in 13 states and Washington, D.C.