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The GreeneHurlocker Blog

Solar and Wind Take Center Stage at the 2018 Virginia Energy Conference

wind turbines and solar arraysRenewable energy development, driven by rising corporate demand, was a central theme of Wednesday’s 2018 Virginia Energy Conference, hosted by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. Garret Bean, Vice President of Development for sPower and one of the keynote speakers at the conference, discussed his company’s proposed 500-megawatt facility in Spotsylvania County, which will serve corporate customers in Virginia. Microsoft announced that it will purchase 315 MW of energy from sPower’s 500 MW project as part of its sustainability goal of 60 percent renewable energy by early 2020. In addition to Microsoft, major global companies including Google, Apple, Facebook, and Walmart have joined together to commit to 100% renewable power as a part of the RE100 initiative.

In his keynote, Bean explained that rapid data center development in Virginia, sustaining 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic, coupled with customer demand for cloud services powered by clean energy sources, presents a significant opportunity for growth in Virginia’s renewable energy sector. However, with the growth of renewable energy, developers are facing siting, permitting, and interconnection challenges that will have to be overcome.

Delegate Terry Kilgore, Senator Frank Wagner, and Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler also discussed the opportunities and challenges of Virginia’s renewable energy industry. Senator Wagner voiced concerns about Virginia’s proposed regulations to link to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and participate in its regional greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade program. However, with the passage of SB 966 this session, paving the way for 5,000 megawatts of solar and wind energy in Virginia, and Governor Northam’s announcement that the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy has posted a Request for Proposals for contracts to help strengthen Virginia’s offshore wind supply chain and service industry, the future for Virginia’s renewable energy industry is looking bright.

If you have questions about Virginia’s renewable energy industry, legislation, or regulatory structure, please contact one of GreeneHurlocker’s energy and regulatory lawyers.

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Class Action Waivers in Arbitration Agreements

U.S. Supreme Court building.

U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a decision that could bode well for competitive retail energy suppliers, the U.S. Supreme Court on May 21, 2018 upheld employers’ arbitration agreements containing class action waivers. In a 5-4 opinion by Justice Gorsuch in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the Court deemed the arbitration provisions enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 2 et seq., which requires courts to enforce an arbitration agreement unless there are grounds to refuse to enforce it under the Act’s savings clause (e.g. fraud, duress, or unconscionability).

In Epic Systems Corp., the employees challenging the arbitration agreements argued that mandated individualized proceedings (i.e. class action waivers) conflicted with language in the National Labor Relations Act, rendering the agreements unenforceable. The Court rejected the employees’ arguments, holding: “Congress has instructed in the Arbitration Act that arbitration agreements providing for individualized proceedings must be enforced, and neither the Arbitration Act’s saving clause nor the NLRA suggests otherwise.”

While this case involved employment contracts rather than retail energy supply contracts, the Court’s precedent upholding arbitration agreements with class action waivers is a good sign for retail energy suppliers concerned about potential class action claims.

If you have questions or would like to learn more issues to consider when preparing retail energy supply contracts, please contact one of GreeneHurlocker’s energy and regulatory lawyers.

Dominion Proposes Significant New Solar and Gas-Fired Generation

On May 1, Dominion Energy Virginia (“Dominion”) filed its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (“IRP”) at the State Corporation Commission (“SCC”). In Virginia, an IRP is a utility’s proposal for meeting customer demand over the next 15 years. An IRP is a planning document and does not represent a commitment to pursue any particular course of action. Instead, it is the utility’s best assessment, at a particular point in time, regarding which resources it will deploy over the planning horizon.

The SCC must review Dominion’s IRP and decide whether the plan is “reasonable and in the public interest.” Generally, interested parties are able to present arguments and testimony regarding the reasonableness of the plan.

Dominion’s 2018 filing includes five alternative scenarios. The key variable in the alternative plans is carbon regulation. For example, the IRP includes different modeling based on whether a carbon tax is imposed at the federal or state level, or whether the Commonwealth joins the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

In each alternative plan, Dominion proposes to add at least 4,700 MW of new solar capacity in the next 15 years. Dominion also proposes to add between 3,700 and 5,200 MW of new gas-fired generation. Dominion suggests that these new gas facilities will be used as “peaking resources,” which run when necessary during periods of increased demand, such as on hot summer days when there is greater need for air conditioning. The also IRP assumes that Dominion’s peak demand will increase 1.4% each year.

The IRP indicates that the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (“ACP”) will be a supply source for the new gas facilities. Dominion states that it has already signed an agreement to “secure firm transportation services on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.” Dominion’s parent company, Dominion Energy, is one of the developers of the ACP.

Finally, the IRP assumes that Dominion’s four nuclear reactors will receive federal approval to remain operational throughout the planning period. However, Dominion says that it will “pause material development activities for North Anna 3,” a third nuclear reactor that the company was planning to construct at its nuclear facility in central Virginia.

The IRP notes that Senate Bill 966, which was enacted by General Assembly earlier this year, will become effective on July 1 of this year. This legislation is intended to encourage investments in renewable energy and “grid transformation” projects. The legislation requires Dominion to propose at least $870 million in energy efficiency programs over the next 10 years.

Dominion states that it “has begun the initial planning associated with a transformational grid modernization effort.” These “grid transformation” efforts will include investments in smart meter technology, distribution substation automation, “replacing aging infrastructure,” and an “enhanced customer information platform” to allow customers to manage their energy consumption. Although the IRP notes that Senate Bill 966 requires the company to propose $870 million in efficiency programs over the next 10 years, the IRP does not identify what type investments might be made.

We expect the SCC will enter an order for notice and hearing in the coming weeks. The SCC’s order will include deadlines for intervention, expert witness testimony submissions, and a date for the evidentiary hearing.

If you have any questions about Dominion’s IRP, or other electric energy matters, please contact one of GreenHurlockler’s renewable energy or regulatory lawyers.

Pending cases will have major impact on energy choice in Virginia

Our clients and colleagues have a lot of questions about the status of retail energy choice in Virginia. In this Energy Update special report, Will Reisinger breaks down the major legal issues and several pending court cases. These cases could determine whether Virginia expands – or restricts – customers’ access to new renewable energy and market-based rate options.

Dominion, Appalachian Power Dispute SCC Decision

SCC CASE UPDATE:

Last week we told you about an important State Corporation Commission (“SCC” or “Commission”) decision that could expand access to competitive electric supply in Virginia. The SCC approved a request filed by a group of manufacturing customers to combine their demands for purposes of shopping for competitive electric supply. The SCC found that their request was “in the public interest.” The SCC approved the customers’ application over the objections of both Dominion Energy Virginia (“Dominion”) and Appalachian Power Company (“APCo”). Dominion argued that allowing the companies to shop for competitive electric supply would “erode a significant portion of the utility’s jurisdictional customer base.”

Both utilities are now appealing the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court. Dominion filed a notice of appeal with the SCC on March 21, while APCo filed its notice on March 15. The utilities have not yet filed their assignments of error (i.e., their grounds for appealing the decision).

Appeals from the SCC are “of right,” meaning the Supreme Court is required to hear any case that’s properly appealed.  While the Court can overturn any of the Commission’s findings, the Court usually gives deference to the SCC. The Court has frequently said that SCC decisions are “entitled to the respect due judgments of a tribunal informed by experience” and that Commission orders won’t be disturbed if “based upon the application of the correct principles of law.”

We’ll keep you updated on the status of this important case. If you want to talk about this case, the SCC’s role, or energy law and regulation, just call any of our energy lawyers.

SCC Decision Expands Access to Competitive Electric Supply

transmission towers for electricityWhile many political observers were focused on Senate Bill 966, the omnibus utility legislation that was just passed by the General Assembly, the Virginia State Corporation Commission (“Commission” or “SCC”) recently issued an important decision affecting customers’ rights to purchase energy from competitive suppliers.

On February 21, 2018, in Case No. PUR-2017-00109, the Commission approved the first ever “customer aggregation” petition under § 56-577 A 4 of the Code of Virginia. As explained in detail below, this section of the Code allows customers to aggregate their demand for the purposes of satisfying the 5 MW demand threshold required to purchase generation from non-utility companies.

In most circumstances, Virginia’s incumbent electric utilities, including Dominion Energy Virginia (“Dominion”), have a monopoly on the sale of electricity in their service territories. Customers must purchase energy from their utility. Virginia law, however, provides two exceptions to the utilities’ monopoly rights. (Under these two exceptions, customers may purchase generation from non-utility suppliers. But shopping customers must still pay for the utility’s distribution services.)

First, under Va. Code § 56-577 A 5, customers may purchase “100 percent renewable energy” from competitive suppliers if  the customer’s monopoly electric utility does not offer an SCC-approved 100% renewable energy tariff. No utility currently offers an SCC-approved 100% renewable tariff.

Second, Va. Code § 56-577 A 3 law allows large customers with annual demands over 5 MW to purchase generation from competitive suppliers. Importantly, the law also allows a group of customers to “aggregate” their demands in order to reach the 5 MW threshold. The statute treats large customers with multiple meter locations as different customers but allows them to aggregate to meet the 5 MW threshold. Once aggregated, the group will be treated as a “single, individual customer” under the law. Before allowing an aggregation, however, the Commission must find that the requested aggregation would be “consistent with the public interest.”

SCC Case No. PUR-2017-00109 was the first test of this statutory provision – that is, the first time a group of customers sought to combine their demands in order to reach the 5 MW threshold. In this case, Reynolds Group Holdings, Inc. (“Reynolds”), a metals and packaging manufacturer, petitioned the SCC for approval to aggregate six of its retail accounts in Dominion’s service territory.

Dominion and Appalachian Power Company (“APCo”) intervened in the case and opposed the petition. Dominion argued that allowing customers to aggregate their demand “would unreasonably expand the scope of retail access [and would] have the potential effect of eroding a significant portion of the utility’s jurisdictional customer base.” Dominion also suggested that the General Assembly – despite authorizing customer shopping and aggregation – intended to allow retail choice “only in limited circumstances.”

But the SCC, relying on the plain language of Va. Code § 56-577 A 4, rejected Dominion’s and APCo’s arguments and approved the petition. Dominion and APCo have until March 23, 2018, to appeal the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.

The SCC is also currently considering additional aggregation requests filed by over 160 Walmart customer accounts in Case Nos. PUR-2017-00173 and PUR-2017-00174. (In both of these cases, GreeneHurlocker is representing competitive suppliers who are supporting approval of Walmart’s aggregation requests.)

Should you have any questions about customer aggregation or competitive supply options in Virginia, please contact one our regulatory attorneys.

Additionally, GreeneHurlocker recently published Principles of Electric Utility Regulation in Virginia, which provides a plain-English explanation of Virginia’s electric utility laws, including the statutes affecting retail choice.

Solar Plant Planned for Richmond

As we previously discussed here, last month it was announced that President Trump signed an executive order to impose a 30% tariff on imported solar cells and modules. While there are many critics of the tariff, one local Virginia businessman hopes the tariff will help lead to Virginia’s first solar panel manufacturing facility.

As reported in the Richmond Times Dispatch article, Charles Bush has transformed a 16,000 square foot former die plant off Midlothian Turnpike in South Richmond to a potential solar panel manufacturing facility. He hopes that as manufacturers look for solar panel manufacturing plants in the United States as a result of the tariff, his plant will be attractive given that its “ready to go.” Bush stated that as of now, the plant can produce 460 solar panels a day, but he hopes to double capacity within the first year of operation.

We look forward to following Mr. Bush’s facility and hope to see solar panel manufacturing in Virginia soon!

If you have any questions regarding the solar tariff or solar energy market, please contact one of our renewable energy lawyers.

Update on Supplier Consolidated Billing in Maryland

Maryland State House (side)

Maryland State House (side) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last fall, Brian Greene discussed the Maryland Public Service Commission’s retail energy supplier consolidated billing proceeding. The Commission is considering supplier consolidated billing as an additional billing option for Maryland customers, alongside the existing utility consolidated billing and dual billing options. With supplier consolidated billing, customers would receive a single bill from their competitive retail supplier that includes both the electricity and natural gas supply charges (from the competitive supplier) and the utility’s transportation and distribution charges.

Under the existing billing paradigm in Maryland, the vast majority of customers receive a consolidated bill from their utility that includes both the energy supply charges and the utility’s transportation and distribution charges. Supplier consolidated billing would flip that model, enabling the competitive supplier to bill the customer, with the flexibility to expand product and service offerings. More information on the details of the proposal are available in the Petition and Reply Comments filed by the petitioning retail energy suppliers (NRG Energy, Inc., Interstate Gas Supply, Inc., Just Energy Group, Inc., Direct Energy Services, LLC, and ENGIE Resources, LLC).

In November 2017, stakeholders submitted extensive comments discussing the benefits and potential risks associated with the supplier consolidated billing proposal. Copies of the comments are publicly available in the Commission’s docket for Case No. 9461.

Following submission of the written comments, the Commission held a legislative-style hearing on February 20th and 21st. Here is a short summary of the two-day hearing:

  • The hearing began with a presentation from the Petitioners in support of supplier consolidated billing. The panel presented and answered questions from the Commissioner for about 2.5 hours.
  • Maryland’s distribution utility stakeholders followed the Petitioners, presenting their views on SCB and responding to the Petitioners’ presentation.
  • Following the utilities, a competitive retail energy supplier panel offered support for SCB, with some offering tweaks to the proposed program.
  • The next panel included public sector stakeholders from the Maryland Energy Administration and Montgomery County offering support for the proposed supplier consolidated billing program and suggestions regarding some of the program details. The Maryland Office of People’s Counsel also presented, discussing what it perceives as potential risks of the program.
  • Commission Staff rounded out the presentations, discussing the merits of the SCB proposal, offering support for the concept and at least one recommendation to alter the proposal.
  • The hearing concluded with the Petitioners offering a few final comments responding to some of the points raised by other stakeholders during the hearing.

After concluding the hearing, the next step is for the Commission to take further action on the proposal. If you are interested in the pending SCB petition in Maryland or any related competitive retail energy market issues, please contact one of GreeneHurlocker’s mid-Atlantic energy lawyers.

Appearing at the MPSC Hearing: From L to R – Brian Greene, Mike Starck (NRG Energy), Duncan Stiles (Just Energy), Tami Wilson (IGS Energy), and Alex Donaho (Direct Energy).

Words Matter in the Heart of the Deal

Lawyers trade in words.  It goes beyond dropping Latin phrases like ipsi dixit (“a dogmatic and unproven statement”) and nunc pro tunc (“now for then”) into legal briefs.  It is part of the business law as well.  Attorneys write into their contracts musty-looking words that are meaningful to them (like “hereby” and “therefor”) to telegraph something to the lawyers on the other side and to courts who might interpret the document years later.

Adherence to customs like this is tied to the fact that lawyers live in a world where the consequences of imprecision can be a serious matter.   There are two ways to accomplish precision: write with rigorous terseness that no one can misunderstand or throw up a fence of words that hems in an unruly concept so tightly that it can’t escape.

Representations, warranties, covenants and conditions are found in most commercial contracts of any complexity, such as shopping center leases and an asset purchase agreement.  These provisions are, or at least should be, sources of comfort to the parties to a contract, because they can greatly reduce the risk that arises from the unknown.   But they are often glossed over by the principals in a deal – perhaps perceived as another lawyerly way of saying the same thing in four different ways.

The contractual basics of offer, acceptance and consideration are usually dispensed with at the top of the book – the first two or three pages of the contract.  These provisions establish the “what” of the deal.  A few pages in come the provisions in which the parties represent to each other that certain facts are true, warrant that a set of facts are accurate, covenant to do things and not do things, and state the conditions on their performance under the contract.  These sections answer the question of “why.”  The representations, warranties, covenants and conditions, and the indemnification and remedy provisions that interact with them, lay bare the reasons for the deal – the preconceptions of the parties.  This is why these provisions are usually negotiated with a high level of precision, whether the method is the rigorous terseness or the high fence of words.

The four concepts are distinct but interrelated.

  • A representation is an assertion of fact that is given by one party to another party to induce that party to enter into a contract, close on the contract, accept the risks inherent in the deal, or take some other action. If the representation of fact is untrue, it is inaccurate, and the remedies for misrepresentation set forth in the contract are available, which could include undoing the contract.   The contract sets the remedies.
  • A warranty is a promise that the facts asserted are true, which is impliedly supported by a promise to make it right if it isn’t true. If the warranted facts are untrue, it is a breach of contract, which, technically, is different than misrepresentation.
  • A covenant is a promise made by a party to take certain action, or refrain from acting. Not doing as promised is a break of contract, and the contract will usually say specifically what the remedies are.
  • A condition is a fact that must be true or an event that must have occurred before a party’s obligations or rights are triggered.

Representations and warranties, while technically different concepts, are so closely related to each other in practicality that it is excusable that the two words are written and spoken as a couplet, as with “over and done” and “peace and quiet.”    Some commentators point out differences, such as that the former is about the past and the latter is about the future.  At the end of the day, though, the distinctions are not important.  Courts often ignore the difference between the two terms, and a contract usually provides the same remedies for both.

Quite a bit is going on with representations and warranties in a corporate acquisition agreement.  They apportion risk.  They create direct claims in the case of inaccuracy.  They form the basis of the parties’ indemnification obligations.  And, they are informational.  The disclosure schedules that lay out the exceptions to the statements of fact will often increase the size of the document to the width of the Hamilton biography or beyond, because it’s in the schedules that the details of the to-be-acquired company are set forth, dialoguing with the legal, financial tax due diligence that the acquirer has undertaken.

Covenants are often intermingled with the representations and warranties – for example, when the party represents and warranties that certain facts will be true at some moment in time in the future.   This is not usually a conscious choice, and for a variety of good reasons (often having to do with clarity as to what remedies apply to what breaches), mixing these concepts together should be avoided.  It is best to keep the future – the realm of covenants — separate from the present and past – the realm of representations and warranties.

Conditions in a contract are critical because they provide the “outs” that a party needs to have in something as complex and nuanced as a corporate acquisition agreement or the contract to purchase an office complex.  The list of things which must be true to finally and inalterably bind a party to close on such a deal is long, and among the most important of them will be that the reps and warranties are accurate as of the closing date and that all actions that the other party has covenanted to take have been taken.

Some say that the only time contracts are necessary is when everything is falling apart.  If that is true, then representations and warranties, covenants, and conditions – and the thick disclosure schedules and indemnification and remedy provisions they spawn – are truly at the beating heart of the business deal.

Delaware Sets Hearing for Retail Market Enhancements

The Delaware Public Service Commission has established a March 8, 2018 hearing date to consider retail choice enhancements.

The Delaware General Assembly meets in the Leg...

The Delaware General Assembly meets in the Legislative Hall in Dover. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The enhancements include a purchase of receivables program; “seamless moves” where customers may move within the utility service territory and maintain their supplier; “ instant connects” where customers may sign up with a supplier on their first day of service; an “enroll with your wallet” program where customers may enroll with a supplier without the use of their utility account number or other utility-assigned identifier; improvements to the Commission’s shopping website; and utility bill inserts to promote choice.

The proceeding has been pending since the end of 2015 when the Electricity Affordability Committee created by the Delaware General Assembly filed a petition with the Commission. Since that time, the parties have filed written comments and participated in working group meetings. Also, the case was stayed for a period of time while the parties and the Commission finalized amendments to the Delaware Electric Supplier Rules.

The case will be heard before a hearing examiner. The primary participants in the case are the Staff of the Commission, Delmarva Power, the Delaware Public Advocate, and the Retail Energy Supply Association (RESA). GreeneHurlocker is representing RESA in the proceeding.

For more information, please contact one of our regulatory attorneys.