Two and a half years ago the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Commonwealth Court Judge Michael Wojcik's Opinion in Hommrich v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission; 231 A.3rd 1027 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2020). A recent review of the net metering applications and other requirements of several Pennsylvania electric distribution companies (EDC’s) demonstrates that some EDCs have not implemented the holdings of the Hommrich decision in these important informational and decisional materials for customers and developers. To fully promote the General Assembly’s intent of incentivizing alternative energy through net metering, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) should require stricter compliance with the law as interpreted in Hommrich.
HMS Legal Blog
Subcategories from this category:Marcellus Shale
Commonwealth Court Confirms Affirmative Public Benefits Standard Still Has Teeth in Fair Market Value Acquisitions (Reversing PA PUC Approval of Aqua Acquisition of East Whiteland Township)
In Cicero v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, ___ A.3d ___, (Pa. Cmwlth., No. 910 C.D. 2022, filed July 31, 2023) (“Cicero”), the court reversed the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) approval of Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater Inc.’s acquisition of East Whiteland Township’s wastewater system assets. The court found Aqua had not proven that the acquisition would provide affirmative public benefits and confirmed that proving net benefits outweigh detriments of a transaction remains the standard for approving fair market value (FMV) acquisitions of municipal assets. Cicero, slip op. at 21 (“[I]n every Section 1329 case, it must be shown that the affirmative public benefits that arise from and are specific to a transaction outweigh the harms of the transaction, such that approval of the transaction will ‘affirmatively promote the service, accommodation, convenience, or safety of the public in some substantial way.’”).
Commonwealth Court Finds Environmental Rights Amendment Requires PUC Environmental Impact Review of Public Utility Facility Siting
On March 9, 2023, the Commonwealth Court issued a memorandum opinion reversing and remanding a Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) decision that approved a natural gas company’s plan for siting facilities. The court held that the PUC failed to fulfill its duties under the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA) because the PUC did not conduct a review or analysis of the environmental impacts of the proposed facilities, including explosion impact radius, noise, or heater emissions. The decision opens the door for environmental activists and municipalities to oppose siting of utility buildings on environmental impact issues and places increased burdens on utilities and the PUC for utility facility siting.
Energy retailer asks Maryland Supreme Court to reconsider the Maryland Public Service Commission’s re-writing of the Maryland Telephone Solicitations Act
On March 31, 2021, the Public Service Commission of Maryland (Commission) issued Order No. 89795 which proposed to drastically re-write the Maryland Telephone Solicitations Act (MTSA) and, if permitted to stand, may fundamentally change the way business is conducted in the state. In Order 89795, the Commission was resolving a complaint filed by Commission staff against SmartEnergy, a Maryland retail energy supplier. The complaint alleged that SmartEnergy engaged in false and misleading advertising in connection with a mailing solicitation campaign that resulted in consumers calling SmartEnergy to sign up for the service advertised in the mailed postcards, and then subsequently becoming disgruntled with the service or the terms. Ultimately, the Commission found SmartEnergy had violated the MTSA and imposed penalties and sanctions, but Order 89795’s re-writing of the MTSA has much broader implications than just the issues and interests alleged in the complaint.
With Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly in favor of legislation to address climate change (83% according to an August 2020 Global Strategy Group survey) recently introduced legislation could jumpstart Pennsylvania’s transition to a renewable energy future. Pennsylvania will have two self-imposed goals for its energy future: (1) by 2035 all electricity will be produced from renewable energy sources, and (2) by 2050 all energy consumed in the commonwealth will be from renewable sources.
The Supreme Court today affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s invalidation of Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (“PUC” or “Commission”) regulations that had the effect of blocking alternative energy project developments of 5 MW or less that propose to use net metering. The PUC’s regulation had defined a developer of a net metering project as a “utility”; because the legislature in the PUC-administered Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act (“AEPS”), 73 P.S. §§1648.1, et seq. prohibited a “utility” from participating in net metering, the PUC’s regulation made it impossible for an alternative energy project developer from availing itself of net metering, essentially rendering such projects uneconomic. The Independent Regulatory Review Commission (“IRRC”) had voted to disapprove this attempt by the PUC to block developers from using net metering in their projects, but the PUC submitted the regulations for legislative approval anyway, and because the general assembly was not in session, the IRRC process allowed the regulations to become law.
Back in 2018 I wrote an article explaining all the reasons why supplier consolidated billing (“SBC”) was a good idea. Then, this morning, I saw an article in Energy Choice Matters, and it provided yet another reason why SBC should be the law. In the ECM story, the recently announced strategic initiatives of FirstEnergy Corp. (“FE”) were discussed, including an initiative to expand its offerings of products and services other than commodity to its captive electric distribution customers. The FE press release extolled that these are “products and services that customers want” including energy efficient lighting, smart home products, maintenance, warranty, and home services. These are all products and services that electric generation suppliers (“EGS”) and natural gas suppliers (“NGS”) provide to their customers and similarly wish to bill along with the commodity charges on a single bill. The discussion makes it clear that FE believes that the billing relationship with customers is a key means of providing value to customers in the form of desirable products and services conveniently billed along with energy while providing incremental income opportunities for the provider of that commodity. The article reveals another data point and strengthens the argument for SBC on grounds that not allowing it demonstrates discrimination and lack of fairness.
A new year is upon us; and while that may facially seem like a good thing, the continued uncertainty has people anxious. I feel challenged to consider what issues, concerns, and hot topics are likely to rise the surface in the next twelve months. With the pandemic still at the top of the news queue most of the time, and with many people still working from home, if they are working at all, picking the possible hot-button issues is no easy task. The trick, if there is one, is to narrow down the range of probable outcomes – in this case, to things that were begun and not finished. What follows are my predictions for those industries regulated by public utility commissions – and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (“PaPUC”) in particular.
On October 4, 2019, Governor Wolf signed into law Act 73 of 2019, and with it provided some much-needed updates to Pennsylvania’s Telemarketer Registration Act. 73 P.S. 2241, et seq. The changes were more surgical than sweeping and focused on a few key elements. First, the revisions added a definition of a “business telephone subscriber” and then added business telephone numbers to all of the prohibitions and requirements of the Act. The short answer here is that whatever requirements once applied only to residential and wireless customers, now also apply to businesses. The second focus was to add a stand-alone definition of “robocall” and to impose requirements for robocalls. The changes also include removing the 5-year lifespan of Do Not Call registrations – once you register, you are on the list until you deregister or abandon the line. Finally, the new law prohibits making telemarketing calls on Legal Holidays.
After a long, complex path, Pennsylvania has finally arrived as an alternative ratemaking state. But who will be the first utility to avail itself of the options now available? Both the Wolf administration (“Administration”) and the Public Utility Commission (“Commission”) seem eager to have a test subject, I mean a willing participant, to propose an alternative ratemaking design. . But there are specific steps a utility must take in order to comply with, and obtain approval from, the Commission.
There have been at least two bills recently introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly introducing a new model for expanding the deployment of solar energy production in the Keystone State. Community Solar is not a technology but rather a business model that allows “community solar organizations” (community-based organizations or for-profit entities), to develop “Community solar facilities” (solar installations no larger than 3 MW under most circumstances) that have “subscribers” (individuals or businesses who pay a subscription fee to receive a specified percentage of the solar output). The subscription is transferable and provides a credit on the local electric utility bill for their subscribed portion of the output. Legislation is required because this arrangement is not contemplated by the current renewables law, the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act (“AEPS Act”), 73 P.S. §§ 1648.1, et seq., or the Electricity Generation Customer Choice and Competition Act (“Choice Act”), 66 Pa. C.S. §§ 2801, et seq.,- creating new obligations for both electric distribution companies (“EDC”) and the Public Utility Commission (“PUC”).
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission opened a docket this year to examine whether it should encourage or require supplier consolidated billing (“SCB”). SCB is when competitive energy suppliers, rather than the utility, bill the customer for all the services associated with their energy supply, including the utility’s distribution charges – sort of the opposite of how it happens today. The reason I suggest that SCB is “sort of” the opposite of how things are done at present, is that when utilities bill and collect for suppliers now, they normally do so under a program called “purchase of receivables” or (“POR”) where the utility bills and collects from the customer and pays the supplier – regardless of whether the customer pays the utility. The supplier pays a fee for this benefit equal to the utility’s bad debt percentage, which is known as the “POR discount”. For example, if a utility can’t collect 4% of what it charges to customers as a group, suppliers only get 96 cents on the dollar for the product they sell, even if the utility collects a larger percentage of charges to the supplier’s customers, which is often the case. However, under the proposed SCB, the supplier would be required to remit 100% of charges back to the utility and manage the entire risk of uncollectible debts on its own.
Most US taxpayers are by now conscious of the passage of President Trump’s signature tax legislation which dramatically reduces the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%. What many folks may not know is that the rates they pay to their local utility include recovery for the income tax expense of those utilities. This raises the question that some states, notably Kentucky and Oklahoma, have already begun to address: “How do regulators make sure that utility rates promptly reflect the substantial reduction in tax liability?” In Oklahoma, the Attorney General has called upon the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to address the tax savings issue which he estimates to total $100 million statewide. The Kentucky Public Service Commission already has ordered utilities to track their savings due to the tax change and to timely pass these savings on to customers. Montana and Michigan are taking similar actions.
On June 2, 2016 the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (“IRRC”) appropriately voted 5-0 to disapprove the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s (“PUC”) attempt to modify its regulations implementing the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (“AEPS”) Act, 73 P.S. §§1648.1, et seq. The IRRC’s rejection was based primarily on its view that the PUC’s proposed regulations would exceed its statutory authority by limiting net-metering of electricity to entities with alternative energy systems sized to generate no more than 200% of their annual consumption. The IRRC went on to state that if the PUC decides to proceed with the rulemaking by deleting this limit, it “should ensure that other provisions of the regulation do not limit a customer-generator’s ability to net-meter excess generation it produces.” The IRRC also found that the PUC had failed to show any need for the modifications and suggested that because the PUC’s proposal appeared to be a change in policy of such a substantial nature consultation with the General Assembly was warranted.
On March 17, 2016 Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) released a 549 page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that significantly changes regulations for transmission lines and imposes regulations on previously unregulated gathering lines carrying, inter alia, natural gas and petroleum products.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) recently issued a final rule making order concerning recovery of fuel costs by gas utilities at Docket No. L-2013-2346923. The full order can be found here: http://www.pabulletin.com/secure/data/vol46/46-4/110.html The Order is designed to simplify and streamline information and procedures for small gas utilities (gross intrastate operating revenues of $40 million or less) when submitting gas cost rate (GCR) filings with the PUC.
On February 18, 2016, EPA Announced its Triennial National Enforcement Initiatives (“Initiatives”). The EPA issues these Initiatives once every three years in order to help “focus time and resources on national pollution problems” according to Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance at EPA. The latest round of Initiatives will begin on October 1, 2016 and once again will list natural gas producers and water authorities as targets for EPA inspections and enforcement.
U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on line between FERC and States when it comes to demand response programs.
Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court in a majority decision reversed the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision and determined that a regional transmission organization’s (RTO) demand response program compensation comes under FERC’s jurisdiction. A demand response program is when, during high electricity demand, customers of electricity are paid not to use electricity. These demand response programs serve to lower electricity prices and increase the reliability of the electric grid. Center to the present issue is FERC’s issuance of Order No. 745 (Order 745). Order 745 requires market operators to pay the same price to demand response providers for conserving energy as to the generators for making energy. The D.C. Circuit Court held that FERC lacked authority to issue the order because Order 745 would directly regulate retail electricity rates. The D.C. Circuit Court also held that FERC’s demand response compensation scheme was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.
In a binding poll of the issues taken at its September 17, 2015 Public Meeting, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (“PUC”) unanimously voted in support of the Natural Gas Supplier Parties’ (“NGS Parties”) request to modify the way Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania (“Columbia”) refunds back to customers’ their share of off-system sales revenue.