In 2017, a California federal district held in Winding Creek v. CPUC that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) had two PURPA problems: 1) its capped PURPA program entitled “Re-MAT” did not adopt an avoided-cost price because of its adjustment mechanism scheme; and 2) the CPUC’s standard PURPA contract (Standard Contract) failed to properly implement PURPA because the contract had only one, not two, pricing options. As a result, the court found that the cap on the Re-MAT program was improper. The district court found that the Standard Contract would need to provide a fixed price at the time of contracting and at delivery to satisfy FERC’s PURPA regulations. The district court also held that it was not its job to fix the Re-MAT pricing problem by setting an avoided cost price or requiring the purchasing utility to provide a contract at the “unadjusted” price demanded by the QF. Both sides appealed.

Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the district court was correct as to all its findings. Perhaps of most importance, the Ninth Circuit concluded that a formula rate could not satisfy the requirement of 18 C.F.R. § 292.304(d)(2)(ii) of a price set at the time of contracting (i.e., when a legally enforceable obligation (LEO) is formed). It stated, that the “Standard Contract provides only one formula for calculating avoided cost, and that formula relies on variables that are unknown at the time of contracting.” Indeed, it found this “infirmity is plain from the face of the regulations, so we do not defer to FERC’s unreasoned conclusion to the contrary.”
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Several moths ago FERC issued an Intent Not to Act on New Mexico Public Regulation Commission’s (NMPRC) LEO standard, which (seemingly) was challenged by a QF’s (Great Divide) Petition for Enforcement under PURPA. The NMPRC had adopted a very strict LEO standard, that required that QFs must be ready to interconnect and deliver energy before any legally enforceable obligation may be created to purchase the power at avoided cost rates. Great Divide turned to federal district court for relief, as one might expect. There was an expectation that this case could provide some important guidance as to the current chasm between many purchasing utilities and the QF industry as to at what point of time a LEO should be found to have been established.

Instead, what the industry received was a lengthy order dissecting whether Great Divide had truly brought an implementation claim as opposed to an “as applied” claim. The court (2019 WL 2144829) found that Great Divide brought an “as applied” claim largely because Great Divide was challenging an NMPRC order finding it had no LEO rather than the rule (Rule 570) on which such order was based and/or the NMPRC’s interpretation of that rule.
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On June 3, 2019, the US. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a Memorandum Opinion (i.e., not for publication), that reinforced the scope of the role of the district and appellate courts in cases brought under the juridical review scheme of PURPA. In the case below, the plaintiff QFs (Plaintiffs) had succeeded in convincing FERC (in a declaratory order ruling) that the Montana Public Service Commission’s (MPSC) legally enforceable obligation (LEO) standard violated PURPA and that the QFs were entitled to declaratory relief. The QF plaintiffs went to district court to obtain confirmation and an order that the LEO standard that the MPSC had applied was illegal. Before the district court could rule, however, the MPSC set a new LEO standard that it placed into effect prospectively. Nonetheless, the district court provided declaratory relief that the prior LEO standard was unlawful. Both the Plaintiffs and MPSC appealed.

The district court had left all interested parties (including with purchasing utility, Northwestern Energy) with no guidance as to what LEO standard should apply to the Plaintiffs and other QFs that were denied contracts under the illegal LEO standard. The QFs wanted guidance, the MPSC wanted the entire matter found moot. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the MPSC, holding that the district court erred in concluding it could reach the merits of Plaintiffs’ request for declaratory relief. The court found that the request for declaratory relief was moot, given that the MPSC regulation under challenge had been changed before the district court issued its ruling.
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“We hold only that where a utility uses energy from a QF to meet a state RPS, the avoided cost must be based on the sources that the utility could rely upon to meet the RPS.” Californians for Renewable Energy v. CPUC (CARE)

Wow! This ruling is now binding within the Ninth Circuit and could have ripple effects throughout the country.

In 2010, in CPUC v. SCE, FERC reversed several decades of PURPA policy and precedent on avoided costs, permitting States with Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) to base avoided cost rate calculations on the costs of other renewable resources regardless of whether alternative non-renewable sources were available at lower cost. This is referred to as “multi-tiered” avoided cost rates. The Ninth Circuit has now taken FERC’s re-interpretation of the rules for determining avoided cost rates a giant step further. Where FERC held that States have discretion to adopt multi-tiered avoided cost rates, the court in CARE turned it into a mandate.

The concept of multi-tiered avoided cost rates has always been legally questionable (and, indeed, has never been subjected to challenge before a court). It is legally suspect because it permits the States to set avoided costs that could impose higher costs on customers than they would have incurred absent the PURPA mandate. This runs contrary to the central principle behind avoided cost pricing according to FERC, which is to prevent the PURPA mandate from increasing a utility’s costs to serve its customers – that “utilities (and their ratepayers) be in the same financial position as if they had not purchased QF power.” As the Supreme Court explained, FERC’s adoption of full avoided cost requires utilities to pay “the same costs had they generated the energy themselves or purchased it from other sources” and, therefore, holds the utility and its customers harmless. PURPA, thus, compels utilities to buy from certain renewable generators, but caps the price based on the alternatives the utility would have built or bought absent the purchase mandate. In CARE, however, the Ninth Circuit arguably turned this principle on its head – with regard to any QF purchase made to meet an RPS. The decision forbids States from considering the costs of the generation resources the utility would have built or bought in the absence of PURPA. 
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Yesterday, FERC issued an order on a Petition for Declaratory order from Sunrun, asking that FERC waive the QF certification filing requirements for separately-interconnected, individual residential rooftop solar PV systems and related equipment with maximum net power production of 20 kW or less that Sunrun provides financing for but which the homeowner has an option to purchase, where such 20 kW or less systems may aggregate to over 1 MW within a one-mile radius; and that in a Form No. 556 submitted for a cluster of rooftop PV systems that exceeds 20 kW, the Commission waive the requirement in Item 8a of Form No. 556 to include information regarding the facilities covered by the first requested waiver (i.e., 20 kW or less facilities), even if they are within one mile of the cluster that exceeds 20 kW that is being certified).

Although the Petition garnered minimal opposition, largely in the form of requests to delay action until (anticipated) PURPA reform occurred, FERC chose to act. FERC granted both waivers, agreeing with prior statements that solar generation facilities installed at residences or other relatively small electric consumers such as retail stores, hospitals, or schools do not present a compelling need for QF registration. The burden of such filings was considered to be too great in light of the lack of benefits. The second waiver was granted for similar reasons, as the fact that new client homeowners are added frequently and existing client homeowners may at any time exercise their option to purchase their 20-or-less kW PV systems would create a major burden on entities with business models such as Sunrun.
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The Legally Enforceable Obligation (LEO) concept is a construct of FERC that is used in one of FERC’s avoided cost pricing regulations, i.e., 18 CFR § 292.304(d)(2)(ii).  The date a LEO is formed is the date a QF is entitled to have its avoided cost rate determined, if it so elects.  Through the decades, state utility commissions have adopted a quite broad array of standards for when a QF has established a LEO with a purchasing electric utility.  In providing non-binding guidance on the topic, FERC has had relatively little to say about the LEO standard other than that the purchasing utility cannot control LEO formation by its own action or inaction, such as a refusal to sign a contract.  For example, FERC has opined that the LEO standard cannot depend on the willingness of the purchasing utility executing a contract with the QF, whether it be a power purchase agreement.  In 2016, FERC expanded on that view, opining that a state may not require that a purchasing utility sign an interconnection agreement before a LEO is formed.  In 2018, several states examined their LEO standards.

Early in the year, the Vermont Public Utility Commission upheld its rule that a LEO cannot be formed until regulatory approval of a proposed power purchase agreement by the Vermont PUC.

As a result of various legal actions, the Colorado Public Service Commission eventually changed its regulations to ensure that a QF could obtain a LEO without winning a competitive solicitation.

In a case before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, the state commission looked for a QF to have made a “substantial commitment” and found that one had been made (and a LEO formed) when a QF:  (1) had paid for the Facility Study, which established how interconnection could be achieved, (2) had executed a Land Lease and Wind Easement, (3) had obtained necessary approvals from government entities, (4) had wind study results, (5) had reserved equipment, and (6) had filed the Complaint with the Commission.
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Over the last several weeks, a variety of entities have filed Petitions for Declaratory Order (PDO) or Enforcement Petitions relating to PURPA that may prove interesting to watch.

Sunrun asked FERC to make an exception for the need to self-certify (through Form 556) QFs under common ownership that total in aggregate more than 1 MW of capacity if all the QFs are located with one mile of one another, but only if such aggregation includes only QFs that are under 20 kW residential solar systems where the customer has a purchase option.  (Sunrun often leases solar systems with an option to buy, thus its desire to avoid the complexities of trying to determine when the 1 MW minimum for self-certification is met.)  This PDO may prove less controversial than some of the others recently filed.

Redlake Falls challenged a Minnesota PUC decision regarding what a utility’s avoided cost was at the time the legally-enforceable obligation (LEO) was formed, in a dispute that involves which rate proposed by various entities best represents avoided cost at the time the LEO was established.  This is not the type of PURPA Enforcement case that FERC is likely to bring an enforcement action itself, but a request was made for a PDO, so some non-binding guidance may be issued.

The two-decade battle between the Swecker family and Midland Power Cooperative and its supplier (Central Iowa Power Cooperative) continues unabated. This case cannot been deemed controversial, as the very same PURPA arguments have now been made and rejected repeatedly by any number of venues.  The most interesting issue to watch in the latest proceeding is whether Midland will finally obtain a suspension of the Sweckers’ rights to bring enforcement actions against Midland and CIPCO that raise the same avoided cost rate scheme.

Finally, in perhaps the most interesting case of the lot, NorthWestern petitioned FERC for a declaratory order determining that:

  • in periods when a utility has excess generation and cannot back down its generation, the avoided cost paid by the utility for energy to QFs should be zero; and
  • nothing in PURPA, including the rule against “non-discrimination” in pricing of avoided cost, permits setting a QF purchase rate above the utility’s avoided cost.


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Supplemental Comments in Docket No. AD 16-16

In testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee as well as other venues, FERC Chairman McIntyre has made clear his desire to update PURPA, which has led to several entities submitting supplemental comments to FERC in Docket No. AD16-16. Supplemental comments have been filed by ELCON, et al., North American BioFuels LLC (BioFuels), EEI, and NARUC. Largely, these comments reiterate prior positions taken by these parties. EEI and NARUC continue to be focused on, among other issues, several areas of reform that would accrue to the benefit of utility purchasers (and presumably their ratepayers) such as competitively-determined avoided cost, the one-mile rule and other economy-of-scale issues, lowering the MW threshold for eliminating the must-purchase obligation. ELCON reinforced its position on standard contracts, FERC’s inappropriate focus on QF size, and the need for more public documentation on avoided cost.

Although the focus of these trade associations on a limited number of big picture issues is understandable, the reality is that FERC’s PURPA regulations could use an even more comprehensive overhaul. For example, a good start would be for the Commission’s PURPA regulations to assume that open access exists, to reconcile (or reconsider) the Commission’s “better than firm” transmission policy for QFs with the reality of the terms of open access tariffs, and to codify the FP&L policy on interconnection jurisdiction. If fast action is desired, two separate rulemakings could be opened: 1) a narrow rulemaking to deal with more pressing issues; and 2) a rulemaking that is broader in scope and focuses on eliminating the vestiges of the 1970s vintage FERC PURPA regulations and case precedent set in the 1980s.

In contrast to the trade associations discussed above, BioFuels, is seeking to solve a particular problem that arose when FERC issued Order No. 671 and Order No. 732 which together require QFs over 1 MW to file self-certifications through Form 556. In its most recent set of supplemental comments, BioFuels is asking FERC to: 1) provide an amnesty period for QF-eligible entities that do not have a Form 556 on file in order to allow them to get into compliance; 2) require that a purchasing utility has received a Form 556 or the equivalent before a power purchase agreement (PPA) becomes effective or a purchase is initiated; 3) require that a purchasing utility not purchase energy from a QF without having received Form 556 or the equivalent; 4) place an obligation on the purchasing utility to provide FERC a copy of any PPA with a QF (whether or not the PPA is entered into pursuant to PURPA) and documentation that the purchase is from a QF; 5) impose possible penalties (albeit under 15 U.S.C. § 797, rather than the Federal Power Act) on purchasing utilities for violation of this last regulations; and/or 6) simplify Form 556 by creating a small power production-specific form.
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