Dominion Energy

Charleston police blocked Bees Ferry Road between Main Road and Bluewater Way Wednesday, May 13, 2020, so a helicopter contractor for Dominion Energy could trim trees away from power lines in a swamp area off the road. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Don’t celebrate just yet, but the Public Service Commission may be starting to get the message.

While everyone was distracted by boat-landing and beach reopenings, the PSC — without a dissenting vote — sided with state regulators over Dominion Energy in a spat that’s dragged on for a year and a half.

No, that doesn’t mean they’re going to make Dominion holster their chainsaws. But perhaps the commission won’t be so quick to rubber-stamp the next rate hike. Which, make no mistake, is coming sooner than later.

And there may be an opportunity in that.

This most recent showdown was over a relatively minor — or at least bureaucratic — thing, but it was sort of a wonkish beat down. The commission ruled Dominion must abide by a Code of Conduct suggested by the state’s Office of Regulatory Staff.

This was one of the conditions the PSC made when it approved Dominion’s takeover of SCE&G parent company SCANA in late 2018. The purpose was to eliminate any legal gray area that would allow the utility to hide material information from state regulators.

Say, for instance, a $9 billion nuclear plant boondoggle.

The ORS suggested a Code of Conduct that required greater transparency in marketing, put rules on the utility selling its customer information, included a non-discrimination clause and called for Dominion to hire a compliance officer to look for signs of, uh, covering up a criminal misappropriation of ratepayer dollars.

Lawyers for the utility formerly known as South Carolina Electric & Gas objected, arguing that SCANA’s code adopted in the 1990s (basically, “We won’t do nothing bad — trust us”) was perfectly fine. But the Public Service Commission seemed particularly moved by regulators’ argument: Their proposed Code of Conduct was, word for word, the same one Dominion signed to operate in North Carolina.

Game, set, match.

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Admittedly, the decision seems like a no-brainer, and it would be for most people. But the PSC has a long track record of siding with the monopoly utilities it’s supposed to police, so much so that irate state lawmakers have threatened to fire the whole bunch.

See: solar power vacillation, and failure to notice the V.C. Summer nuclear project had turned into a SCANA cash grab.

The Code of Conduct decision doesn’t mean ratepayers are safe from future rate increases. The way the law works, with guaranteed profits for utilities, it is almost impossible for the PSC to wholesale deny rate increases. But perhaps they will study the numbers with a more discerning eye. If they want to keep their lucrative jobs.

And that brings us back to the trees. Although the PSC is charged with protecting the public’s interest, the ORS says that doesn’t necessarily extend to our trees. A new group called “Stop Dominion” has formed in Charleston over the utility’s ongoing — and less-than-elegant — carving of local trees.

Despite the group’s assurances that Dominion can be stopped, the ORS says utilities unfortunately have an undisputed right-of-way around their power lines … and everyone is pretty much powerless to stop it. Dominion has a mandate to provide uninterrupted electricity to homes and business, and errant tree limbs are the No. 1 reason for power outages. So they have strong legal cover.

Do they go overboard, using low-bidders and cutting a swath wide enough so that they only have to do it once every five years? Obviously. But Charleston, which has a deal with the utility to prune more prudently than national standards, has no real bargaining chit to force Dominion into backing off. So says the regulators.

The PSC, however, could have a little influence over the Charleston chainsaw massacre — seeing as how it has the ultimate authority to set Dominion’s rates.

Perhaps commissioners, when they are mulling that upcoming rate hike, could demand some more thoughtful tree management — say, less intrusive cutting every three years — in exchange for a more favorable ruling on new rates? Because, again, they have little power to completely deny rate increases ... but they have some.

It may be wishful thinking, but the PSC just proved it has some sway over the way utilities conduct themselves. Maybe it’s time to make sure the PSC gets the message on trees.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.