FERC’s Final PURPA Rule May Significantly Alter the Landscape for Qualifying Facilities

Brett A. Snyder, Frederick M. Lowther, and Jane Thomas

On July 16, 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “Commission”) issued Order No. 872 (“Order”), a final rule that significantly revised its rules implementing the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (“PURPA”). Congress enacted PURPA to reduce the country’s reliance on oil and natural gas by promoting “Qualifying Facilities” (“QFs”) that rely on alternative energy sources or more efficient generation. Since their promulgation, FERC’s regulations implementing PURPA have been largely unaltered. FERC opined that the energy industry has substantially evolved since PURPA was promulgated and that the final rule is necessary to address the changing landscape and more closely align with underlying congressional intent.

Among other things, PURPA requires electric utilities to offer to purchase electric energy from QFs, which are categorized as either small power producers or cogenerators. The rate that a QF may receive for energy must be a rate “not to exceed the incremental cost to the electric utility of alternative electric energy,” which is “the cost to the electric utility of the electric energy which, but for the purchase from such cogenerator or small power producer, such utility would generate or purchase from another source.” In other words, “the purchasing utility cannot be required to pay more for power purchased from a QF than it would otherwise pay to generate the power itself or to purchase power from a third party.” This is referred to as the utility’s “avoided cost.”

Rates for energy are generally categorized as either fixed or “as-available.” Fixed rates are generally fixed at the time of the contract or other legally enforceable obligation (“LEO”) between the QF and the utility and do not vary over the term of the contract or LEO. For example, many renewable energy projects, which generally produce only to sell into the market and rely on a fixed revenue stream for financing, often rely on fixed energy rates. Conversely, other types of generators, such as cogeneration facilities, might only sell into the market when they have excess energy and will take the prevailing price at the time of sale. This rate is referred to as an “as-available” energy rate and is variable. Rates for capacity are generally fixed at the time of contract or LEO. QF rates for energy and capacity are set by state commissions.

Order No. 872 follows a technical conference, notice of proposed rulemaking (“NOPR”), and multiple rounds of industry comments. The Order adopts most of the NOPR proposals and substantially alters the rules for QFs.

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D.C. Circuit Upholds FERC’s Rules Encouraging Electric Storage Participation in Wholesale Markets

Brett A. Snyder, Lamiya N. Rahman, and Jane Thomas

On July 10, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) denied challenges1 to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (“FERC” or “Commission”) final rule on electric storage participation in Regional Transmission Organization (“RTO”) and Independent System Operator (“ISO”) markets (“Order No. 841”).2

Order No. 841 aimed to facilitate the participation of electric storage resources (“ESRs”) in RTO/ISO markets, with the goals of removing barriers to participation by ESRs, increasing competition within RTO/ISO markets, and ensuring just and reasonable rates. Specifically, FERC ordered RTOs/ISOs to establish participation models that recognize the physical and operational characteristics of and facilitate participation by ESRs.3

An ESR for these purposes is defined as “a resource capable of receiving electric energy from the grid and storing it for later injection of electric energy back to the grid,”4 and encompasses storage resources located on the interstate transmission system, on a distribution system, or behind the meter.5 Order No. 841 declined to allow states to decide whether ESRs located behind a retail meter or on a distribution system in their state could participate in RTO/ISO markets.6 On rehearing, the FERC reiterated that it would not provide state opt-out rights, arguing among other things that “establishing the criteria for participation in the RTO/ISO markets of [ESRs], including those resources located on the distribution system or behind the meter, is essential to the Commission’s ability to fulfill its statutory responsibility to ensure that wholesale rates are just and reasonable.”7 FERC further concluded that it was not required under the Federal Power Act (“FPA”) or relevant precedent to provide an opt-out from ESR participation.8

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Breaking with Precedent, D.C. Circuit Holds FERC Lacks Authority to Issue Tolling Orders under the Natural Gas Act

Mark R. HaskellBrett A. Snyder, and Lamiya N. Rahman

On June 30, 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) struck down the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (“FERC” or “Commission”) practice of issuing tolling orders that extend the time FERC may take to consider applications for rehearing of its orders under the Natural Gas Act (“NGA”). In a recent decision on en banc rehearing in Allegheny Defense Project v. FERC,1 the D.C. Circuit ultimately denied landowners’ and environmental groups’ challenges to FERC’s approval of the Atlantic Sunrise interstate natural gas pipeline on the merits. However, the court’s rejection of FERC’s tolling order practice—which breaks with longstanding precedent and creates a circuit split—significantly affects proceedings under the NGA and likely implicates FERC’s rehearing procedures under the Federal Power Act (“FPA”).

The NGA requires natural gas companies to obtain a certificate of public convenience and necessity from FERC in order to construct and operate an interstate natural gas pipeline.2 Once such a certificate is issued, the NGA confers upon certificate holders eminent domain authority to obtain necessary rights-of-way.3

The NGA further provides that before a party can seek judicial review of a FERC order, it must apply for rehearing of the order.4 Upon receiving such an application, the NGA provides FERC the “power to grant or deny rehearing or to abrogate or modify its order without further hearing.”5 If FERC does not act on the application for rehearing within 30 days, the application “may be deemed to have been denied.”6 Given the complexities inherent in its proceedings, FERC’s practice has often been to issue tolling orders intended to “act upon” the rehearing requests within the 30-day timeframe (i.e., to avoid the requests from being deemed denied), without making a substantive merits decision on such requests. Petitioners in Allegheny Defense Project argued that FERC’s tolling order process unfairly stalls judicial review of FERC’s pipeline approvals, while pipelines are permitted by FERC and district courts to proceed with construction and exercise eminent domain authority, respectively, in the interim.

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FERC Establishes Revised ROE Methodologies for Public Utilities and Pipelines

Mark R. HaskellBrett A. Snyder, and Lamiya N. Rahman

On May 21, 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) issued two orders addressing methodologies for analyzing the base return on equity (“ROE”) components of rates of FERC-regulated entities. In Opinion No. 569-A, FERC revised the methodology used under section 206 of the Federal Power Act (“FPA”) to evaluate the base ROEs of public utilities.1 In a separate Policy Statement, FERC clarified that the methodology established in Opinion No. 569-A applies, with certain exceptions, to natural gas and oil pipelines.2

Opinion 569-A

To change a public utility’s rates, including ROE, in a complaint proceeding under section 206 of the FPA, FERC must (i) make a finding that an existing rate is unjust and unreasonable; and (ii) determine a just and reasonable rate.3

FERC’s recent order arose from two complaint proceedings challenging the base ROE of Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc. (“MISO”) transmission owners.4 In November 2019, FERC issued Opinion No. 569, establishing a revised methodology to determine whether the existing base ROE was unjust and unreasonable under the first prong of FPA section 206, and if so, to establish a new just and reasonable replacement ROE under the second prong.5

Among other things, Opinion No. 569 relied on the discounted cash flow model (“DCF”)6 and capital-asset pricing model (“CAPM”)7 in the first prong of its FPA section 206 analysis, and declined to use two other models—i.e., the Expected Earnings8 and Risk Premium9 models. FERC adopted the use of ranges of presumptively just and reasonable ROEs that would be based on the risk profile of a utility or group of utilities. FERC gave equal weight to the DCF and CAPM models to establish composite zones of reasonableness. Absent evidence to the contrary, an ROE within the zone of reasonableness would be presumptively just and reasonable while an ROE outside this range would be presumptively unjust and unreasonable. FERC also relied on the DCF and CAPM models (and declined to use the Expected Earnings and Risk Premium models) in the second prong of its section 206 analysis in order to establish a new just and reasonable ROE.10

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EPA Reverses Course with the Mercury and Air Toxics Regulations for Power Plants

Margaret Anne Hill, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

The saga for regulating mercury and air toxics from coal- and oil-fired power plants continues with a final rule promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) on April 16, 2020. EPA initially determined that it was “appropriate and necessary” under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act to regulate hazardous air pollutants (“HAPs”)—including mercury—for these types of power plants, commonly referred to as electric utility steam generating units (“EGUs”).[1] In a change of policy, EPA has now decided that the “appropriate and necessary” determination to regulate HAPs for these power plants—after two decades of additional EPA rules, and corresponding litigation—is no longer correct.[2]

A significant part of the backstory here is related to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2015 in Michigan v. EPA.[3] Briefly, the Court held that the EPA needed to consider costs in evaluating whether it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate HAP emissions from coal- and oil-fired EGUs, especially the costs associated with compliance. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, EPA, under the Obama Administration, conducted a study in 2016 to evaluate these costs and concluded that it was still “appropriate and necessary” to regulate HAPs emitted from these sources.[4] The Trump Administration has now reversed course in issuing the April 16 final rule, effectively concluding that the EPA’s decision in 2016 was wrong. Continue reading “EPA Reverses Course with the Mercury and Air Toxics Regulations for Power Plants”

FERC Provides Additional Regulatory Relief and Guidance in Response to Coronavirus Pandemic

Mark R. Haskell, Brett A. Snyder, and Lamiya N. Rahman

On April 2, 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “Commission”) announced several measures intended to provide relief to regulated entities responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. A summary of FERC’s previous COVID-19-related relief and guidance can be found here.

In a Policy Statement, the Commission indicated it will prioritize and expeditiously act on requests for relief filed by regulated entities in connection with ensuring business continuity of their energy infrastructure. In a series of notices and orders, the Commission also extended or clarified the relief available to regulated entities that are unable to meet certain deadlines or regulatory requirements as a result of their COVID-19 response. This relief includes:

    • Extension to June 1, 2020 for the following deadlines:
      1. Form Nos. 60 (Annual Report of Centralized Service Companies) and 61 (Narrative Description of Service Company Functions);
      2. Form No. 552 (Annual Report of Natural Gas Transactions); and
      3. Electric Quarterly Report Form 920.
    • Extensions to May 1, 2020 for the following deadlines for categories of filings that would otherwise be due on or before May 1, 2020:
      1. interventions, protests, or comments to a complaint;
      2. briefs on and opposing exceptions to an initial decision;
      3. answers to complaints and orders to show cause; and
      4. initial and reply briefs in paper hearings.
    • Waiver of FERC regulations governing the form of filings submitted to the Commission (e.g., provision of sworn declarations) through May 1, 2020.
    • Shortening of the answer period to three business days for motions for extensions of time due to COVID-19 emergency conditions. The Commission indicated it will also consider requests to shorten the comment period for motions seeking waiver of requirements in Commission orders, regulations, tariffs, rate schedules, and service agreements to as short as five days.
    • Temporary blanket waivers from document notarization and in-person meeting requirements established under open access transmission tariffs, or other tariffs, rate schedules, service agreements, or contracts subject to the Commission’s jurisdiction. These waivers are effective through September 1, 2020.
    • Extension of time for filing regional transmission organization (“RTO”)/independent system operator (“ISO”) Uplift Reports and Operator Initiated Commitment Reports required pursuant to Order No. 844 that were originally due between April and September 2020. These reports are now due to be posted on the RTOs/ISOs websites by October 20, 2020.

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FERC Issues Guidance and Regulatory Relief in Connection with Coronavirus Response

Mark R. Haskell, Brett A. Snyder, Lamiya N. Rahman, and Jane Thomas

On March 19, 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “Commission”) announced several regulatory responses to the coronavirus pandemic and FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee held a press conference to discuss the agency’s initiatives. The Chairman emphasized the capabilities of the Commission and its staff to work in a timely manner throughout the pandemic response, while striving to provide necessary flexibility to regulated entities.

The Chairman named Caroline Wozniak, a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Energy Market Regulation, as the point of contact for all energy industry inquiries related to the impacts of COVID-19. Members of the regulated community may e-mail PandemicLiaison@FERC.gov with questions for Commission staff.

Chairman Chatterjee clarified that the Commission will provide regulated entities with flexibility when needed, but emphasized the Commission is fully functioning and will try not to delay decisions. Chairman Chatterjee also stated his goal is to issue certain rehearing orders involving pipeline certificate projects challenged by affected landowners within 30 days, consistent with guidance from the Chairman issued on January 31, 2020.

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FERC Issues Penalty Assessment in Vitol CAISO Market Manipulation Proceeding

Mark R. Haskell, George D. Billinson, and Lamiya N. Rahman

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an Order Assessing Civil Penalties, imposing approximately $1.5 million in civil penalties on Vitol Inc. and one million dollars in penalties on a Vitol trader. In a departure from prior cases, the Commission assessed penalties well below Enforcement Staff’s recommended six-million-dollar penalty for the company, in light of the individual trader’s significant involvement in the alleged scheme. The next step for Respondents wishing to challenge the Order will be de novo review in federal district court.

On October 25, 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “Commission”) issued an Order Assessing Civil Penalties (“Order”), imposing civil penalties of $1,515,738 against Vitol Inc. (“Vitol”) and one million dollars against Federico Corteggiano, a Vitol trader, in connection with an alleged market manipulation scheme in the California Independent System Operator Corporation’s (“CAISO”) markets.[i] Additionally, the Commission ordered Vitol to disgorge unjust profits, plus interest, of $1,227,143.

As we have previously discussed, the Commission began this proceeding by issuing an Order to Show Cause and Notice of Proposed Penalty to Respondents on July 10, 2019. In that order, the Commission directed Vitol and Corteggiano to show cause why they should not be assessed civil penalties of six million dollars and $800,000, respectively, and why Vitol should not be required to disgorge unjust profits of $1,227,143, plus interest. Respondents elected to have the Commission assess an immediate penalty if it finds a violation and then proceed with de novo review before a federal district court.

In the instant Order, the Commission found that Vitol and Corteggiano (collectively, “Respondents”) violated the anti-manipulation prohibitions in the Federal Power Act (“FPA”) and FERC’s Anti-Manipulation Rule[ii] through a cross-market scheme in which Respondents sold power at a loss in the CAISO wholesale electric market to avoid greater losses in Vitol’s positions in a separate financial product—congestion revenue rights (“CRRs”).[iii]

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[i] Vitol Inc., Order Assessing Civil Penalties, 169 FERC ¶ 61,070 (2019).

[ii] FPA § 222 (2012); 18 C.F.R. § 1c.2 (2019).

[iii] Specifically, the Commission found Respondents intentionally engaged in fraudulent physical energy imports during the period October 28-November 1, 2013, at the Cascade intertie to relieve congestion at Cragview, which in turn lowered the Cragview locational marginal price (“LMP”) and economically benefitted Vitol’s CRRs sourced at that location. Order at P 34.

Pennsylvania Plans to Join the RGGI CO2 Cap-and-Trade Program

Margaret Anne Hill, Christopher A. Lewis, Frederick M. Lowther, Frank L. Tamulonis III, and Stephen C. Zumbrun

At the outset of 2019, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf set a goal for Pennsylvania to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now, Governor Wolf plans to achieve that goal by taking the bold step to establish a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program through executive action. On October 3, 2019, Governor Wolf issued an Executive Order directing the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) to begin the process for Pennsylvania to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (“RGGI”, pronounced “Reggie”). RGGI is a market-based cap-and-trade program implemented by several Northeast states to reduce power sector CO2 emissions. Governor Wolf’s Executive Order made national headlines because of the potential implications of Pennsylvania—a state known for its coal and natural gas reserves—joining RGGI. But this news is only the start of a long regulatory process, one that could realistically take years to become implemented. At this stage, Pennsylvania fossil-fuel power generators should familiarize themselves with RGGI’s requirements and procedures as well as the rulemaking process by which the Commonwealth might join RGGI.

The RGGI Program

RGGI is a collective effort by its member states to create a Northeast regional cap-and-trade program affecting fossil-fuel power plants greater than 25 megawatts. Member states—currently Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont, with New Jersey in the process of rejoining—each enact statutory or regulatory programs in their respective states that are RGGI compliant. CO2 emitting power plants then participate in RGGI regional auctions to purchase CO2 emission allowances for usage, or to sell on secondary markets. RGGI caps the total amount of CO2 emission allowances, measured in tons of carbon, with the most recent cap being 80.2 MM-tons. Beginning in 2021, the cap will be set at 75.1 MM-tons, which will then be reduced by 30 percent between 2020 and 2030. Proceeds from the auctions are distributed to the respective states for investment in programs to further reduce CO2 emissions, such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, or consumer benefit programs. Continue reading “Pennsylvania Plans to Join the RGGI CO2 Cap-and-Trade Program”

FERC Further Clarifies Its Orders Reforming Generator Interconnection Procedures and Agreements

Mark R. Haskell, George D. Billinson, and Lamiya N. Rahman

On August 16, 2019, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC” or “the Commission”) issued an order granting in part and denying in part requests for further clarification of its reform of Large Generator Interconnection Agreements (“LGIA”) and Procedures (“LGIP”).[1] Order No. 845-B affirms FERC’s prior findings that the expansion of an interconnection customer’s option to build does not impede transmission owners’ ability to recover a return of and on network upgrades. The order also reiterates FERC’s determination not to revise the pro forma LGIA’s indemnity provisions.

Order No. 845—FERC’s Final Rule revising the pro forma LGIP and LGIA—made various reforms to “improve certainty for interconnection customers, promote more informed interconnection decisions, and enhance the interconnection process.”[2] Among these changes, the Commission expanded interconnection customers’ ability to exercise the option to build transmission providers’ interconnection facilities and standalone network upgrades beyond instances where the transmission provider is unable to meet the interconnection customer’s preferred construction timeline.

A subsequent decision, Order No. 845-A, among other things, rejected arguments that the option build revisions contradicted the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit’s (“D.C. Circuit”) decision in Ameren Services Co. v. FERC. According to the Commission, “Ameren stands for the principle that the Commission cannot prohibit a transmission owner from earning a return of, and on, the cost of its network upgrades.”[3] In that case, the D.C. Circuit vacated FERC’s orders requiring the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc. (“MISO”) to remove an option under its tariff allowing transmission owners to unilaterally elect to initially fund network upgrades and to thereafter recover the interconnection customer’s portion of the cost burden through periodic network upgrade charges that included a return on the capital investment (i.e., the “transmission owner initial funding option”). Although the Commission initially found the transmission owner initial funding option unjust and unreasonable, the D. C. Circuit remanded the orders directing the Commission to “explain how investors could be expected to underwrite the prospect of potentially large non-profit appendages with no compensatory incremental return.”[4] The Commission reinstated the transmission-owner initial funding option on remand.

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