Tax Reform

The GOP-passed tax reform law, a/k/a the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, lowered the corporate federal income tax from a maximum of 35% to a flat rate of 21%.

Numerous transmission utilities file tariffs with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that are based on a cost of service revenue requirement. The expense of federal corporate income tax is one of those costs of service. When a corporation’s tax rate goes down from a maximum of 35% to a flat 21%, its income tax expense goes down, and thus its cost of service revenue requirement goes down. So, one would think that when transmission utilities’ tax rates go down, as they have, that benefit might flow through (or is that trickle down) to ratepayers.


No transmission utility filed any amendments to its tariffs to reflect the new, lowered tax rate. Maybe they thought nobody would notice it, and they could pocket that 14% difference. (“Oh boy!!!).

So on March 15, 2018, FERC opened a series of new proceedings requiring that these transmission utilities either lower their rates to reflect the tax cut, or show cause why they should not be required to do so.

Your tax dollars at work.


The Facebook Problem


Facebook’s cavalier attitude towards its users’ privacy interests, and its oceanically broad view of what constitutes a user’s “consent” will come back to bite Zuckerberg in the tuchus.

Meanwhile, the lesson for all users of free services on the net, whether Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or whatever, is fairly simple:

If the service is free, then YOU are the product being sold.


NYC Substation

The New York Times today reported that Russian hackers had gained access to nuclear plants and electricity grid controls, and would have been able to shut off the power in the United States at will.

That is deadly serious stuff.

More amazing still, it was the Trump Administration, that leveled the accusation against Russia. Putin may regard that as an act of disloyalty by Trump, perhaps triggering his release of kompromat on the Donald.

Perhaps he’ll announce a 25% tariff on Steele dossiers.

energy expense nat gas $$$

State laws and regulations generally specify the time periods for which public utilities must keep records, and those periods vary for different types of records. For example, a public utility may be required to maintain records of meter tests for six or more years, while customer billing records may be subject to retention periods of only a year or two.

Similarly, these regulations may limit the time period for which a public utility may recover from its customer if the utility learns that it has provided service to the customer for which it hasn’t billed. This permitted backbill period may be as short as one year in the  case of residential customers, and perhaps longer in the case of nonresidential customers.

These time periods vary from state to state and must be confirmed in any particular case. But all of these time periods can have important consequences for customers if they suspect, or discover, that they’ve been overcharged.

For example, assume Customer Industries opened its factory in 2010, and in 2018 it learns that it has been overcharged for a particular cost component of its bill since the account was opened. Naturally, it would like to recover the whole amount of the overcharge. But it may find itself stymied because it doesn’t keep copies of its own utility bills for more than a year or so.

Assume further that the utility is required to keep customer bills for only two years. If the utility recognizes that it has overcharged Customer Industries and is willing to issue a refund, it may limit its refund to the previous two years, even though the overcharge stretches back for eight years. The utility may claim that Customer Industries can’t prove overcharges for any period prior to that. Will they win on that? A definite “maybe.” At the very least, Customer Industries will have a steep evidentiary climb in order to make its case.

The customer would also have to check applicable regulations to see if there’s a distinction between errors that appear on the face of the bill (e.g., an error in addition or multiplication), and errors that are “latent” and can only be determined by analyzing the cost components on the bill.

In either case, Customer Industries would be in a much stronger position if it had simply kept its bills, or copies of them, because then it would have an actual record of what the overcharge was.

Recall that state regulations may limit the periods for which a utility can backbill a customer. But that does not necessarily limit the period for which the customer can claim a refund from the utility — provided that it has evidence. And that evidence consists of utility bills.

Given that you can buy a scanner at any office supply store for less than $200, there’s really no excuse for not keeping copies of utility bills. They could turn out to be worth a lot more than you think.



S Korea Nuke plant

On Tuesday, ISO New England, which operates the electric grid for certain states in that region (other than New York), issued a report that New England’s average annual real time wholesale electricity price for 2017 at $33.94 per megawatt-hour was the second-lowest price in fifteen (15) years. ISO New England stated that these low prices were driven chiefly by low prices for natural gas, the principal fuel used for generation at the margin, as well as reduced demand levels.

As earlier stated on the Sparkspread, for several years Exelon CEO Chris Crane has played the role of Peter the Hermit in the electric utility industry’s Crusade to rescue nuclear generation fleets from the infidels of the wholesale market. That is, he wants to make sure that electricity consumers make Exelon and other nuke operators whole for any losses they suffer because, contrary to their expectations, electricity prices have been hitting record lows in a number of markets, mainly due to low natural gas prices. When prices fell, Crane and his cohort lost no time in complaining about the “flawed market” for wholesale electricity.

If things had gone the other way – if electricity prices had risen to record highs instead of fallen to record lows – you can bet that Mr. Crane and his fellow nuke CEOs would be saying that electricity consumers must simply accept the results of the perfectly self-regulating free market in electricity, and if prices rise, that’s just, as they say in Brooklyn, T.S., Elliott.


Eminent Domain

Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied a request by environmental groups and landowners for a stay that would have delayed construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), a 303-mile long natural gas pipeline running from Wetzel County, West Virginia to Pittsylvania, Virginia. When built, the MVP will carry 2,000,000 dekatherms of natural gas per day to markets in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions of the U.S.

The problem, of course, was first identified by John Denver in 1971 when he described the area through which the proposed pipeline will pass as almost Heaven. Life is old on the MVP route, older than the trees that have to be cut down, but younger than the mountains that must be trenched to lay a 42-inch diameter underground pipe.

MVP is important for landowners because one of the chief reasons that line developers go to utility regulatory commissions, whether at the state or federal level, is to obtain the power of eminent domain. The developer may not be able to negotiate acquisition of all rights-of-way necessary for its project. It needs the power of the government behind it so that it can compel private landowners to grant easements over their properties, including structures. Developers also use the threat of an eminent domain proceeding as a lever in negotiating the price of easements.

Before the MVP case reached the DC Court of Appeals, it was litigated before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 161 FERC P61043, which issued a certificate of public convenience and necessity for the pipeline in October 2017. Under the Natural Gas Act, once FERC issues a CPCN for a natural gas pipeline project, the holder obtains the power of eminent domain over properties necessary to complete the project. Many state public utility laws are to the same effect, though only within the particular state.

Landowners should be aware that in these cases, whether they’re for oil or gas pipelines or electricity transmission lines, the integrity of their property rights will be decided not by a court, but by an administrative agency, such as FERC or a state public utilities commission. These administrative agencies may or may not give proper weight to eminent domain issues. But the question of public necessity, which is the analog of public use in typical eminent domain cases, is considered by the administrative agency in the first instance. A court reviewing the agency’s order on appeal may view the public necessity issue as one predominantly of fact, and may be disinclined to upset the agency’s findings. Likewise, if a landowner challenges the developer’s easement in a new court case, that court may decide that it does not have jurisdiction to hear the landowner’s challenge because it would mean reviewing the issuance of the CPCN. Or it may simply deem such a request a collateral attack on the agency’s order.

Recall that in Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005), the Supreme Court essentially removed all guard rails and speed limits from the eminent domain highway. The Court interpreted the concept of public use so broadly that essentially all a local government had to do was declare a neighborhood “blighted” and then turn it over to some politically-connected developer. Some states passed laws to limit eminent domain after Kelo.

But more threatening to landowners is that, within the context of an administrative CPCN proceeding, developers will seek to separate CPCN and eminent domain issues to the greatest extent possible. For example, the developer may seek to bifurcate the case so that the public convenience and necessity of a proposed project is analyzed without reference to its effect on private landowners because the bifurcation restricts eminent domain issues to a separate proceeding. Or the developer may simply urge that the regulator dismiss any concern about eminent domain because they are not seeking that power in the instant case.

Either way, for landowners that’s a recipe for disaster. Once the developer obtains its CPCN, the issue of “public necessity” or “public use” has already been determined, and they may well find themselves effectively precluded from defending their property rights.

Today’s edition of Utility Dive discusses our pending appeal in the Illinois Zero Emission Credit Case. You may read the article here.