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The GreeneHurlocker Blog

Virginia Supreme Court Upholds Electric Utility Rate Freeze

But There Is A Powerful Dissent

On September 14, 2017, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued an opinion affirming the controversial “rate freeze law.”transmission towers for electricity

As we previously discussed here and here, a group of industrial customers of Appalachian Power Company (“APCo”) appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, asking the Court to strike a controversial portion of the Virginia Electric Utility Regulation Act (“Regulation Act”). The group, the Old Dominion Committee for Fair Utility Rates (“Committee”), challenged a 2015 amendment to the Regulation Act, Senate Bill 1349 — the so-called “rate freeze law” which prevents the State Corporation Commission (“SCC” or “Commission”) from reviewing or reducing the base rates of APCo and Dominion Virginia Power (“Dominion”) until 2020 and 2021, respectively.

There is little dispute the law has helped APCo’s and Dominion’s profits and led to rates that are higher than they otherwise would be if the Commission had authority to review them. Using Dominion’s own figures, Commission Staff calculated in a recent report that the company’s customers would be due about a $130 million refund on bills paid in 2015 and 2016. APCo had overearnings of more than $20 million in 2016, according to the report.

The case centered around the language in Article IX, § 2 of the Constitution of Virginia, which the Committee argued reserved rate-making authority to the Commission, and that the General Assembly had overstepped its authority by passing legislation that stripped the Commission from reviewing the utilities’ rates for five and seven years. Article IX, § 2 provides as follows:

“Subject to such criteria and other requirements as may be prescribed by law, the [State Corporation] Commission shall have the power and be charged with the duty of regulating the rates, charges, and services and, except as may be otherwise authorized by the Constitution or by general law, the facilities of railroad, telephone, gas, and electric companies.” Va. Const. art. IX, § 2.

Justice Mims, in a powerful dissent, summed up the issue properly:  “This case boils down to a simple question: what does that sentence mean?”

In an opinion written by Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan, the Supreme Court of Virginia rejected the Committee’s argument that the rate freeze law violates Article IX, § 2 of the Constitution of Virginia. The Court explains that “[t]here is nothing in Article IX, § 2 that clearly indicates that the Commission’s authority to set rates displaces or is exclusive of the General Assembly’s authority.” The Court further states that the Commission correctly decided that the rate freeze law “is constitutional because it is not plainly repugnant to Article IX, § 2 of the Virginia.” In her opinion for the Court, Justice McClanahan also noted that the Court has “no constitutional authority to judge whether a statute is unwise, improper, or inequitable because the legislature, not the judiciary, is the sole author of public policy.”

In his dissent, Justice Mims argues that the language in Article IX, § 2 means that the “General Assembly may impose standards and prerequisites that the Commission must adhere to when exercising its power and duty to set rates.”  He goes on to clarify that it “does not mean that the General Assembly may suspend that power and duty.” Justice Mims warns that based on the Court’s analysis, the General Assembly has the power to strip the Commission of its power set forth in Article IX, § 2 at its will. “That sobering outcome thwarts the purpose behind creating the Commission in the first place.”

GreeneHurlocker represented the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council (“VCCC”), which filed an amicus brief before the Court. The VCCC argued that the rate-freeze law was unconstitutional. If you have any questions about any of the legal aspects of this case, do not hesitate to contact one of GreeneHurlocker’s Virginia energy and regulatory attorneys.

Virginia Commission Rejects Utility “Green Tariff” Proposal

wind turbines and solar arrays

Virginia Commission unanimously rejects utility “Green Tariff” proposal, representing major victory for renewable energy advocates

wind turbines and solar arraysOn September 14, 2017, the Virginia State Corporation Commission entered a final order rejecting a renewable energy tariff proposal (“Green Tariff”) filed by Appalachian Power Company, finding that the tariff rates were not just and reasonable. APCo’s Green Tariff was intended to offer customers the option to purchase 100% renewable energy instead of energy produced from coal and gas-fired facilities. Given the structure of APCo’s proposal, the Commission’s decision represents a major victory for renewable energy developers, environmental advocates, and clean energy suppliers in Virginia.

APCo’s application requested permission to offer a voluntary, 100% renewable tariff to its customers. But APCo proposed to simply repackage generation it was already purchasing via four power purchase agreements (“PPAs”), and then reallocate that energy to participating customers. Customers would have paid 18% more than their standard rates to participate in the program.

The so-called Green Tariff, if approved, would have represented the first time a Virginia utility offered a 100% renewable tariff option for its customers. But, if approved, the tariff would have also largely foreclosed competition for renewable energy and prevented customers from purchasing generation from competitive suppliers. Under current law, most customers are allowed to purchase renewable generation from third-parties only if their incumbent electric utility does not have an approved tariff for 100% renewable energy. See Va. Code Section 56-577(A)(5).

GreeneHurlocker represented the Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association (“MDV-SEIA”) in the case. MDV-SEIA argued that APCo’s proposal was not in the public interest and should be rejected for several reasons. For example, the per-MWh price of the Green Tariff was unreasonably high and not reflective of current prices for renewable energy. MDV-SEIA also noted that the Green Tariff did not contain any solar generation or any Virginia-based renewable resources of any kind.

The Commission agreed with MDV-SEIA, finding that “[APCo] has not established that the rate proposed under [the Green Tariff] is just and reasonable,” The Commission also cited MDV-SEIA’s arguments that the Green Tariff price “is much higher than prevailing prices for renewable energy.” But the Commission noted that APCo is not precluded from applying for approval of a redesigned renewable energy tariff.

APCo is permitted to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Virginia by filing a notice of appeal at the Commission on or before October 16, 2017.

The Commission is also currently considering a similar renewable tariff application filed by Dominion Energy Virginia (“Dominion”) in Case No. PUR-2017-00060. If approved, Dominion’s tariff would severely limit clean energy choices for its large customers and potentially other classes of customers in the future.

Please contact one of our renewable energy lawyers or regulatory attorneys should you have questions about this case. The Commission case number for the APCo matter is PUE-2016-00051, while Dominion’s proposal is currently being considered in PUR-2017-00060.

Virginia Closer to Regulating Power Plant Carbon Emissions

coal-fired plant in VirginiaThe advisory panel that will develop a carbon reduction program for Virginia power plants held its first meeting last week.  The panel is tasked with developing a draft regulation that would cap greenhouse gas emissions from Virginia’s fossil fuel generating facilities for the first time ever. The advisory panel, appointed by Governor McAuliffe, includes environmental advocates, utility representatives, and renewable energy developers.  Preston Bryant, who served as Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources under Governor Tim Kaine, will serve as a moderator.

The panel’s work was set in motion in May, when Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive action directing the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) to draft a regulation restricting the emission of carbon dioxide from electric generating facilities. Executive Directive 11 ordered DEQ to draft a regulation pursuant to Va. Code §§ 10.1-1300, et seq. that will “abate, control, or limit carbon dioxide emissions from electric power facilities.” The directive states that DEQ must propose a regulation that is “trading ready” and will allow for the exchange of carbon emissions allowances with other states.

The panel’s first job will be to determine how to structure a program where carbon credits or allowances can be traded among emitters. One option for a “trading ready” program would be for Virginia to join the existing Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”).  RGGI is a regional carbon “cap and trade” program with nine northeast member states.  Under RGGI, carbon allowances can be bought and sold at auctions, and the auction revenues can result in income for member states.  However, the Virginia General Assembly would likely have to approve Virginia’s participation in RGGI.  The General Assembly would also likely have to approve any carbon allowance trading program that results in revenues for the Commonwealth, as State agencies are generally prohibited from enacting revenue raising programs without legislative approval.

The Governor’s directive was issued at the same time that the federal Clean Power Plan, a greenhouse gas regulation promulgated by the EPA during the Obama administration, is under legal challenge and subject to a stay by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Trump administration has also indicated that it will attempt to suspend or repeal the Clean Power Plan.

Under the Governor’s executive directive, the advisory panel has until December 31, 2017, to present the proposed regulation to the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board, which would then open up the proposed rule for public comment. Please contact one of our renewable energy lawyers or regulatory attorneys should you have questions about this matter.

Maryland Public Service Commission Rejects Utilities’ Proposals

Proposals Would Drive Up Costs for Competitive Retail Energy Suppliers and their Customerstransmission towers for electricity

Good news for Maryland’s competitive energy suppliers and their customers. In the past few weeks, the Maryland Public Service Commission issued two Letter Orders rejecting requests by BGEPepco, and Delmarva Power to include in the Purchase of Receivables programs costs incurred to comply with the recent RM54 proceeding. In other words, they wanted to recover those costs from competitive retail suppliers. Under the utilities’ proposals, costs to implement certain market enhancements – including 3-business-day accelerated switching – would have been recovered through the discount rate applied when the utility purchases supplier receivables.

There were slight differences to the utilities’ arguments. BGE argued that its current tariff allowed for recover through the POR rates of RM54-related costs. The Commission agreed with the Retail Energy Supply Association that BGE’s tariff does not allow BGE to recover these costs through POR discount rates. Pepco and Delmarva had sought to modify their respective tariffs to include language allowing for recovery. The Commission said no.  Also, in each case, the Commission stated that it “does not believe that it would be appropriate to force suppliers and their retail customers to bear the costs associated with the implementation of a program that benefits all ratepayers, as well as the competitive market as a whole.” Instead, the utilities can seek cost recovery through a base rate case.

RESA scored another win on a second issue in the case when the Commission rejected BGE’s proposed exclusion of revenues from late payment charges (“LPCs”) in the POR discount rate, effectively reducing the amount BGE pays suppliers for receivables purchased through the POR program. In a powerful rebuke to BGE’s proposal, the Commission explained that for “the past six years the Commission has consistently approved the inclusion of the LPCs in the discount rate calculation.  Similarly, the Commission has consistently denied any request for exclusion of these charges. The Commission reaffirms the reasons previously given for requiring the inclusion of LPCs in the calculation, declines to make the significant policy change being requested by BGE, and denies the Company’s request that LPCs be omitted from its POR discount rate.” This is a great result for RESA, the competitive retail energy supply markets in Maryland, and Maryland energy consumers.

Brian Greene, managing member of GreeneHurlocker, PLC represented RESA in this matter as referenced in the Commission’s Letter Order. The lawyers of GreeneHurlocker are pleased to be able to report this good news from Maryland and look forward to continuing to serve our clients in Maryland and the other jurisdictions where they operate. If you have questions about the details of this Commission Letter Order or any other matters involving regulated industries, please contact one of GreeneHurlocker’s regulatory attorneys.

SCC Hearing Examiner Recommends Denial of Appalachian Power’s Renewable Tariff

wind turbines and solar arraysOn Wednesday, June 21, a Virginia State Corporation Commission (“Commission”) Hearing Examiner issued a report recommending denial of a renewable energy tariff (“Green Tariff”) filed by Appalachian Power Company (“APCo”). If accepted by the full Commission, the Hearing Examiner’s findings would be a victory for renewable energy developers and competitive energy suppliers operating in Virginia.

APCo’s application requested permission to offer a voluntary 100% renewable tariff to its customers. APCo proposed to repackage generation it was already purchasing via four power purchase agreements (“PPAs”), and then reallocate that energy to participating customers. Customers would pay an 18% premium in order to participate in the program.

The so-called Green Tariff would represent the first time a Virginia utility offered a 100% renewable tariff option for its customers. But, if approved, the tariff would also largely foreclose competition for renewable energy in Virginia and prevent customers from purchasing generation from competitive suppliers. Under current law, most customers are allowed to purchase renewable energy from third-parties only if their incumbent electric utility does not have an approved tariff for 100% renewable energy. See Va. Code Section 56-577(A)(5).

Environmental and renewable energy advocates, including our client, the Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association (“MDV-SEIA”), opposed APCo’s proposed Green Tariff. MDV-SEIA argued that the proposal is not in the public interest and should be rejected for several reasons. First, the per-MWh price of the Green Tariff is unreasonably high and not reflective of current prices for renewable energy. MDV-SEIA also noted that the Green Tariff does not contain any solar generation or any Virginia-based renewable resources of any kind. The four PPAs that form the basis of the Green Tariff represent wind and hydrologic energy located in Indiana and West Virginia. Moreover, the Green Tariff would not encourage the development of any new resources; all of the Green Tariff’s out-of-state facilities were placed into service between 7 and 15 years ago.

The Hearing Examiner largely agreed with the arguments raised by MDV-SEIA, finding that the “per MWh cost of the [proposed tariff] is significantly higher than the average cost for new wind power in the PJM region” and that the tariff rate would be “18% higher than APCo’s standard rate for service.” The Hearing Examiner also cited data, obtained by MDV-SEIA through a motion to compel, indicating that the Green Tariff price was significantly higher than other renewable energy recently added to APCo’s portfolio. Finally, the Examiner noted that the Green Tariff “has the potential to suppress or even curtail customer access to 100 percent renewable energy by precluding sales by [competitive renewable energy suppliers] while at the same time offering an incumbent utility alternative that is simply too costly for customers to bear.” The Hearing Examiner determined that the Green Tariff, if approved, would not support the clean energy objectives of the Commonwealth’s Energy Policy, found in Title 67 of the Code of Virginia.

The Hearing Examiner’s report and recommendation now goes to the full Commission, which can approve or reject it. The Commission is also currently considering a similar renewable tariff application filed by Dominion Energy Virginia (“Dominion”) in Case No. PUR-2017-00060. If approved, Dominion’s tariff would also severely limit energy choices for most of its customers.

Please contact one of our renewable energy lawyers or regulatory attorneys should you have questions about this case. The Commission case number for this matter is PUE-2016-00051.

DC Commission Instructs WGL to Implement a Purchase of Receivables Program

The District of Columbia Public Service Commission (PSC) has issued an Order directing Washington Gas Light Company (WGL) – the only natural gas distribution utility in the District – to implement a purchase of receivables (POR) program for competitive retail natural gas suppliers that sell natural gas supply in the District.  WGL must file an implementation plan by July 17, 2017, and stakeholders may comment on the plan within 15 days thereafter.

In the Order, the PSC adopted components of a POR program that will resemble WGL’s program already in effect in Maryland, and also Pepco’s program already in effect in the District. At the outset, the PSC made clear that POR programs promote customer choice, thereby increasing competition and reducing commodity prices. The PSC noted that the availability of POR programs has led to increased supplier participation in Maryland and in the District’s electric choice programs.

The PSC addressed the elements of the discount rates for suppliers serving residential and non-residential customers. Without going into every component, WGL’s POR will be non-recourse as to suppliers and the POR discount rates will include: (1) bad debt expense; (2) implementation costs; (3) incremental collection costs; (4) cash working capital costs; (5) risk factor; (6) reconciliation factor; and (7) late payment revenues. A few points here worth mentioning:

  • WGL must include in its implementation plan a detailed breakdown of implementation costs. WGL has previously stated that its the costs will range from $600,000 to $800,000, which the PSC noted is far more than the $150,000 it cost Pepco to implement a POR program in the District in 2012, and far less than the $3.3 million it cost WGL to implement a POR program in Maryland in 2012.
  • The risk factor will be set to zero.
  • WGL must include late payment revenues collected on purchased receivables in the discount rate.
  • Non-commodity charges, such as early termination fees, are not to be purchased.

The PSC initiated this case after the Retail Energy Supply Association (RESA) raised POR as an issue in a separate proceeding regarding WGL’s billing system. The PSC held, in that case, that consideration of a POR program was warranted, and initiated Formal Case 1140 to consider it. Stakeholders, including WGL, RESA, and the Office of People’s Counsel, filed comments in FC 1140 during the months leading up the Order.

If you would like more information about GreeneHurlocker’s work in the competitive retail energy space throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, or other related areas, please contact one of our energy lawyers.

UPDATE: Dominion appeals SCC decision in renewable energy case

wind turbines and solar arraysDominion Virgina Power has appealed a recent Virginia State Corporation Commission (Commission/SCC) decision in the renewable energy case to the Virginia Supreme Court. As we discussed in detail here, renewable generation suppliers recently won a major victory at the SCC. On April 26, 2017, Direct Energy Services, LLC (“Direct”) received a favorable ruling from the Commission that reaffirms the rights of competitive suppliers to sell renewable energy to retail customers in the Commonwealth. On May 25, 2017, however, Dominion Energy Virginia (“Dominion”) gave notice that it would appeal the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The case was initiated when Direct filed a petition for declaratory judgment asking the Commission to clarify the meaning of several portions of Virginia’s retail choice statute, Virginia Code § 56-577. One part of the statute, Va. Code § 56-577 A 3, provides that large customers purchasing energy from competitive suppliers must provide “five years’ advance written notice” if they wish to go back to receiving service from their incumbent utility. But another part of the statute, Va. Code § 56-577 A 5, provides that all retail customers, regardless of their size, may purchase 100% renewable energy from competitive suppliers if their incumbent utility does not offer a 100% renewable energy tariff. Direct noted that this latter statutory provision does not include a five-year notice requirement.

The Commission entered an order on March 17, 2017, agreeing with Direct that customers who purchase 100% renewable energy pursuant to Va. Code § 56-577 A 5 are not required to comply with the five-year minimum notice requirement contained in Section A 3. On April 26, following a motion for reconsideration filed by Dominion, the Commission reaffirmed its decision and legal analysis.

On May 25, 2017, Dominion gave notice that it would appeal the matter to the Virginia Supreme Court. Under Virginia law, appeals of Commission orders are “of right,” and all appeals of SCC decisions must be heard by the Court. Virginia Supreme Court rules require Dominion to file its assignments of error within four months of the Commission’s final order.

Please contact one of our renewable energy lawyers or regulatory attorneys should you have questions about this case. The Commission case number for this matter is PUE-2016-00094.

Virginia Governor Directs State to Regulate Carbon Emissions

McAuliffe’s Directive Requires State Regulation of Carbon Emissions from Power Plants

coal-fired plant in VirginiaOn May 16, 2017, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive action directing the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) to draft a regulation restricting the emission of carbon dioxide from electric generating facilities. Executive Directive 11 orders DEQ to draft a regulation pursuant to Va. Code §§ 10.1-1300, et seq. that will “abate, control, or limit carbon dioxide emissions from electric power facilities.” The directive states that DEQ must propose a regulation that is “trading ready” and will allow for the exchange of carbon emissions allowances with other states.

This type of action would be a first in Virginia. While the state Air Pollution Control Board has previously enforced greenhouse gas rules promulgated under the federal law – including the Clean Air Act’s new source permitting provisions – the Commonwealth has never before attempted to promulgate carbon rules based solely on state law.

On May 12, 2017, in response to a legislative request, Attorney General Mark Herring issued an advisory opinion stating that carbon emissions constitute an “air pollutant” and thus are subject to regulation under state law. The Attorney General’s opinion noted that “the overwhelming body of scientific literature demonstrates a growing consensus among scientists” that carbon emissions “contribute to elevated global temperatures and may be harmful to the welfare of people, animals, and property.”

The Governor’s directive comes as the federal Clean Power Plan, a greenhouse gas regulation promulgated by the EPA during the Obama administration, is under legal challenge and subject to a stay by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Trump administration has also indicated that it will attempt to suspend or repeal the Clean Power Plan.

The Governor directed that the draft regulation should be presented to the State Air Pollution Control Board for consideration no later than December 31, 2017. After the regulation is proposed, it will be subject the notice and comment procedures established by Virginia’s Administrative Process Act. Executive Directive 11 followed a report and recommendation issued by a workgroup chaired by the Secretary of Natural Resources.

Please contact one of our renewable energy lawyers or regulatory attorneys should you have questions about this matter.

Maryland Commission Approves 380 MW of Offshore Wind

offshore wind projectOn May 11th, the Maryland Public Service Commission approved two offshore wind projects, totaling 380 megawatts of wind capacity. Development of these offshore wind facilities is expected to create almost 9,700 new jobs. In the introduction to the order approving the projects, the Commission explains the significant environmental and economic benefits of offshore wind, positioning Maryland “to become a national leader in the burgeoning offshore wind industry.” The Commission’s order even quotes Governor Larry Hogan’s proclamation from his 2017 State of the Union Address: “Maryland is truly Open for Business.” The two developers approved to move forward with offshore wind development are U.S. Wind, Inc., and Skipjack Offshore Energy, LLC.

The Commission’s order establishes the Offshore Wind Renewable Energy Credit (OREC) price – a levelized price of $131.93 (in 2012 dollars), subject to a 1.0% price escalator. Starting in 2021, Maryland will include ORECs in its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). This means that a portion of every unit of electricity purchased in Maryland will be backed by offshore wind. The Commission’s order (at Table 2) specifies that the offshore wind component of the Maryland RPS will begin at 1.37% in 2021, decreasing to 0.60% in 2042.

This is an exciting development for the renewable energy industry in our region and we look forward to continued and expanding opportunities for companies competing in the energy industry and the customers they serve.

If you would like more information about offshore wind in Maryland or other related opportunities, please contact one of GreeneHurlocker’s energy and regulated industries lawyers.

Community Solar Growing in Mid-Atlantic

Eric Wallace explains what’s driving the increase in interest and use for community solar energy generating facilities in mid-Atlantic jurisdictions such as Maryland and the District of Columbia. For more information about community solar projects and regulation, contact Eric or any of our mid-Atlantic energy lawyers.