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The GreeneHurlocker Blog

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.

ALERT: Trump Imposes Tariff on Solar Module Imports

Client Alert

Section 201 Proceeding Announcement:

 On Monday January 22, the U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer announced and on January 23, President Trump signed am executive order to provide relief to U.S. manufacturers and impose safeguard tariffs on imported solar cells and modules, based on the investigations, findings, and recommendations of the independent, bipartisan U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC).

The U.S. Trade Representative recommended, and the President chose to take action by applying, the following additional duties on imported solar cells and modules:

Year 1:                  30%
Year 2:                  25%
Year 3:                  20%
Year 4:                  15%.

The first 2.5 gigawatt of imported cells are excluded from the additional tariff.  We are continuing to monitor the imposition of these duties and will provide additional information on our website as available.  If you have any questions, please contact any of our renewable energy or administrative law attorneys.

Energy Secretary Perry Concerned With Grid Resiliency

Eric Wallace covers the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) sent by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in regard to grid resiliency.

Virginia Moves Forward with Carbon Cap and Trade Plan

But some uncertainties remain.

coal-fired plant in VirginiaOn Thursday, November 16, the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board unanimously approved a draft rule designed to reduce carbon emissions from fossil generating facilities operating in the Commonwealth. The highly complex regulation, if implemented, would require Virginia generating facilities to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”) trading system. The regulation will be administered by the Air Board and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”).

Following the publication of the rule, which is expected to occur in December or early January, 2018, there is a 60-day period in which the public and interested parties may provide comment on the rule. Following this public comment period, the Air Board would vote on the final rule in 2018.

The proposed rule would establish an initial statewide carbon cap of either 33 or 34 million tons, which represents the amount of carbon dioxide forecasted to be emitted in the Commonwealth in 2020. The carbon rule does not require generators to purchase emissions allowances from the Commonwealth in an auction, thus avoiding a state requirement that all revenue-raising measures must be approved by the General Assembly. Instead, generators will be freely allocated allowances, which they will thereafter consign to the RGGI auction.

Allowances purchased at the RGGI auction would no longer be conditional – meaning that generators will surrender these RGGI allowances to DEQ in order to cover their emissions. For each conditional allowance consigned to the auction, the generator will receive the clearing price of the auction. This allows generators to consign all of their conditional allowances but only purchase what they need.

Under the rule, therefore, utilities and other power plant operators would have an incentive to reduce emissions to avoid having to purchase additional allowances. Any unneeded emissions allowances must be sold in the RGGI trading system, with the proceeds credited to Virginia utility customers. However, the rule does not specify precisely how such proceeds would flow back to consumers.

The regulation would only apply to generation facilities that are 25 MW or larger in capacity. There are approximately 32 such facilities in Virginia that will be subject to the rule.

Between 2020 and 2030, the statewide carbon cap would be reduced by 3 percent each year, meaning that generating facilities would either need to reduce emissions or purchase additional emissions allowances.

The draft regulation represents the first time Virginia has attempted to regulate the amount of carbon that may be emitted by existing power plants. DEQ has regulated carbon emissions from new power plants since 2011.

Attorney General Mark Herring, in an official opinion issued in May, 2017, found that a carbon cap and trade program would be lawful. The Attorney General found that the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board, under existing law, is “authorized to regulate ‘air pollution’” and to promulgate regulations “abating, controlling and prohibition air pollution.” Under Virginia law, “air pollution includes “substances which are or may be harmful or injurious to human health, welfare or safety, or to property.” The Attorney General also stated that “it is well settled that [greenhouse gases] fall within this definition.”

Virginia’s regulation will take the place of the federal Clean Power Plan, which is in the process of being repealed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Please contact one of our regulatory attorneys should you have questions about this draft rule.