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State Corporation Commission

Virginia Commission Denies Walmart’s Request to Shop for Electricity

On February 25, 2019, the Virginia State Corporation Commission entered a Final Order denying Walmart’s petitions seeking permission under Va. Code § 56-577(A)(4) (“Section A 4”) to aggregate or combine the demands of certain electricity accounts. Walmart had filed a petition to aggregate 120 accounts in the Dominion service territory and 44 accounts in the Appalachian Power service territories. Had the petitions been approved, Walmart intended to enter into a contract to purchase electricity from its affiliate, Texas Retail Energy, but would remain as a distribution customers of the utilities. But, the Commission denied both petitions.

Under § 56-577(A)(4), nonresidential customers can aggregate their load to hit the 5 MW floor needed to switch electricity supply from the customer’s utility to a competitive service provider (“CSP”). Section A 4 requires the customers to seek Commission approval to aggregate. A company like Walmart must seek permission because the Code treats non-contiguous sites that are under 5 MW as separate customers. The Commission may approve the petition if it finds that: (1) “neither such customers’ incumbent electric utility nor retail customers of such utility that do not choose to obtain electric energy from alternate suppliers will be adversely affected in a manner contrary to the public interest by granting such petition,” and (2) “approval of such petition is consistent with the public interest.”

In the Final Order, the Commission found that remaining customers would be adversely affected in a manner contrary to the public interest. The Commission cited to alleged costs that would be shifted to remaining customers attributable to the loss of Walmart’s load. The Commission also cited to the alleged bill impacts that the utilities presented in the cases which purported to show the increases to an average residential customer’s monthly bills in the event Walmart was allowed to shop. The Commission also cited to the potential for lower earned returns for the utilities and found that the potential for load growth in a utility service territory did not matter.

The Commission determined that “the harm to customers who do not, or cannot, switch to a CSP is contrary to the public interest.” The Commission noted that the vast majority of Dominion and APCo customers have no ability to shop for solely lower prices. The Commission discussed that since 2007, the average Dominion and APCo residential customer has seen monthly bills increase by $48 (73%) and $26 (29%), respectively, and that with the mandates in Senate Bill 966, passed in 2018, more increases are likely to come.

Of course, there were numerous arguments presented by Walmart and other parties in the proceedings that addressed and countered the Commission’s findings summarized above.

The Commission concluded that if Walmart believes the current statutory structure results in rates that are too high, or that the public policy of Virginia should be to institute retail choice on a far more extensive scale than required under current law, “its potential for recourse may be found through the legislative process.” That process would begin with the 2020 legislative session because the 2019 sessions ended on Sunday, February 24 — the day before the Commission entered the Final Order.

The case numbers are PUR-2017-00173 (Dominion) and PUR-2017-00174 (APCo). Follow those links to see all the documents, including the Final Order, filed in each case. If you have questions about these cases, electricity purchases or rates, or need legal counsel regarding electricity regulation, please contact one of our Virginia regulatory lawyers.

SCC Order OKs new, but limited, APCo customer renewable tariff

On January 7, the State Corporation Commission (“SCC” or “Commission”) approved a request by Appalachian Power Company (“APCo”) to offer a 100% renewable energy tariff to its customers. The APCo proposal, designated Rider WWS, would include energy generated at several wind and hydroelectric facilities that are currently part of the utility’s generation portfolio. For residential customers taking service under the tariff and using 1,000 kilowatt hours per month, the monthly bill increase would be $4.25. Customers would also pay a “balancing” charge that is intended to ensure that non-participating customers are not affected by the tariff.

Several renewable energy and environmental advocates opposed APCo’s proposal. APCo and the intervening parties disagreed about whether the price of the tariff was based on current market prices for renewable energy and whether it is appropriate for APCo to sell energy that is already in its utility’s generation portfolio at a premium rate. Appalachian Voices, represented in the case by the Southern Environmental Law Center, argued that APCo’s proposal would “charge customers more than they currently pay for the privilege of claiming the output of certain resources already in APCo’s fleet.” Several parties noted that the rate customers would pay is tied to renewable energy credit (“REC”) market prices, as opposed to the actual cost of the underlying renewable energy. The Commission’s staff also questioned whether Rider WWS would constitute a renewable energy tariff at all, since the tariff price would be based on the cost of RECs – not on the price of renewable energy itself.

Finally, several parties noted that approval of the application would eliminate the rights of many APCo customers to shop for renewable energy. The effect on retail choice is due to Virginia’s unique regulatory structure. Virginia is, for the most part, a traditionally regulated jurisdiction. This means that incumbent electric utilities such as APCo hold state-protected monopolies on the sale of electricity in their service territories. Virginia law, however, provides a few exceptions under which customers can purchase electric generation from non-utility companies licensed by the SCC to sell retail electricity.

One of these exceptions is for 100% renewable energy purchases. The Code allows any Virginia customer – including residential customers – to purchase electricity “provided 100% from renewable energy” from non-utility suppliers. Pursuant to the statute, however, this option is only available if the customer’s incumbent electric utility does not offer an SCC-approved tariff for 100% renewable energy. Prior to the SCC’s decision in this case, no Virginia utility had an SCC-approved 100% renewable tariff in place. The Commission’s final order did not reference the tariff’s implications on retail choice.

The Commission’s final order also rejected the recommendation of the hearing examiner who conducted the evidentiary hearing. The hearing examiner recommended that the Commission deny the application because the proposal would result in “unjust and unreasonable” rates. The hearing examiner found that the evidence presented by APCo to support the application was “unsubstantiated” and based on outdated market prices for renewable energy.

Should you have any questions about this case, please contact one of our energy regulatory attorneys. The Code sections authorizing retail choice are discussed in our firm’s Virginia electric regulation guide.

Client Alert: Dominion In the Market for Solar, Wind

On October 24, 2018, Dominion Energy Virginia (Dominion) announced and issued an RFP seeking 500 MW of solar and on-shore wind generation. Projects must be at least 5 MW. Interested bidders can propose to either sell Dominion the project development assets or sell energy to Dominion under a Power Purchase Agreement. Projects must be located in the Commonwealth of Virginia to be eligible.

The RFP schedule is as follows:

Intent to Bid forms due: This Friday, November 2, 2018
Proposals to sell development assets due: December 13, 2018
Proposals to sell energy (PPA) due: March 14, 2019
RFP concludes: Second Quarter 2019

Dominion has pledged to have 3,000 megawatts of new solar and/or wind energy under development or in operation by early 2022. Dominion also announced that it will issue formal RFPs on an annual basis until the 3,000 MW target is met.

If your company has questions or would like any additional information regarding the Dominion RFP, please contact one of our renewable energy attorneys or utility attorneys.

SCC Sets Procedural Schedule for Dominion Grid Application

On July 24, 2018, Dominion Energy Virginia (“Dominion”) filed a Grid Transformation Plan with the Virginia State Corporation Commission (“Commission” or “SCC”). The SCC has entered a procedural schedule for this case and set an evidentiary hearing for November 15, 2018.

Dominion’s grid plan proposes to invest approximately $816 million in projects designed “to enhance the reliability, resiliency and security of the electric distribution grid.” Dominion also states that the plan will “facilitate the integration of distributed energy resources, such as solar or battery storage, into the system.” Dominion proposes to make the $816 million in investments over a three-year period, between 2019 and 2021. In particular, the utility wants to install approximately 1.4 million smart meters throughout its service territory between 2019 and 2021. There is more about the request here.

The filing also outlines the utility’s longer-term grid transformation priorities. Over 10 years, Dominion proposes to invest over $3.1 billion in grid transformation investments. These investments would include additional smart meters and other “advanced metering infrastructure” as well as reliability improvements and “grid hardening” projects. Dominion’s plan includes proposals to replace certain aging distribution facilities and increase the company’s physical and cyber security capabilities.

The application is filed pursuant to recently enacted legislation, Senate Bill 966, passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Northam earlier this year. Dominion’s petition requests the SCC to find that the plan is “reasonable and prudent.” The legislation provides that “grid transformation projects” are “in the public interest.” However, the law does not require the Commission to approve any of the proposed investments.

Dominion does not request cost recovery in its filing or explain whether the spending plan would result in rate increases for customers. This case has been docketed as Case Number PUR-2018-00100. Interested parties have until September 11, 2018, to intervene in this case.

If you want to know more about how this filing may affect energy markets in Virginia or have a legal issue in the energy field, please contact any of our renewable energy lawyers.

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.

Has Your Company Registered as a Foreign Entity?

Blair Powell, business and energy lawyer, explains what it means to be required to register in a jurisdiction as a foreign entity and what penalties may accrue if you fail to do so.

For more information, contact Blair or any of our business lawyers.

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.

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.

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.