FERC, CFTC, and State Energy Law Developments

Interest in microgrids is on the rise in the United States as over half of states explore ways to modernize the grid and promote distributed energy resources (DER), including innovative renewable energy, storage, and demand response technologies. However, microgrids are not defined by law or regulation in most states and are more complex than other types of DER because they involve both the generation and distribution of energy. This raises several policy questions, including who should pay for microgrid development and use and whether microgrid operators that technically distribute energy to retail customers should be classified as public utilities and subject to regulations ordinarily imposed on such entities. California is currently exploring the potential benefits of microgrids and the role of state regulation.

FERC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) on September 19 announcing its intent to revise key rules governing the status and rights of Qualifying Facilities (QFs). These revisions include proposed changes to the rules for measuring QF size that could make it more difficult for certain projects to maintain QF status. The NOPR also proposes to provide greater flexibility to states in regulating the rates that QFs can receive from their interconnected utilities, as well as a number of other fundamental changes in the regulation of QFs.

A proposed rule by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could reduce costs for oil and gas producers and processors by eliminating certain air emission requirements. The EPA issued a proposed rule on August 29 to roll back new source performance standards (NSPS) established in 2012 and 2016 by removing sources in the transmission and storage segment from the source category; rescind the NSPS applicable to those sources, including methane and volatile organic compounds requirements; and rescind the methane-specific requirements of the NSPS applicable to sources in the production and processing segments. The proposed rule also includes an alternate proposal to rescind the methane-specific requirements of the NSPS applicable to all oil and natural gas sources, without removing any sources from the source category.

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published draft guidance on June 26 to address how agencies implementing environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) should consider greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The new guidance would replace the Obama administration’s 2016 guidance, which has been on hold since April 5, 2017, pending “further consideration” pursuant to Executive Order 13783, Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth.

If adopted, the guidance could impact every federal agency proceeding that requires a NEPA analysis, including FERC natural gas pipeline certificate proceedings, liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility certificate proceedings, nuclear power plant decommissioning projects, and independent spent fuel storage installation facilities.

The guidance specifies that under the NEPA “rule of reason,” which defers to agency expertise in conducting NEPA analyses, as well as existing CEQ regulations, “[a]gencies preparing NEPA analyses need not give greater consideration to potential effects from GHG emissions than to other potential effects on the human environment.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC or Commission) on July 18 issued a rule, initially proposed in July 2016,[1] restructuring the way it collects certain data for market-based rate (MBR) purposes and significantly expanding the information it collects from MBR holders. Under the Final Rule, FERC will now collect MBR application and certain compliance information in a new database with multiple data tables relating to one another via entity-specific, unique identification numbering (FERC’s new “relational database”), an intricate and entirely new electronic reporting system that will become compulsory in early 2021.[2] Order 860 also adopts changes to the ownership and the gas and electricity “affiliate” information required in an MBR Seller’s compulsory disclosures.

The Final Rule will take effect on October 1, 2020, and baseline submissions will be due by February 1, 2021.[3] As of February 1, 2021, prior to filing an application for initial MBR authority, a new Seller will be required to make a submission into the relational database, which will itself create the required asset appendices and indicative screens that filers had previously prepared independently. FERC affirmed that after January 31, 2021, a Seller will no longer report its affiliated generating and related electric and gas assets in the current .XLS format (an Appendix B Excel spreadsheet).[4] Instead, the information will now be submitted in XML format and the data to be collected in the relational database, which the Final Rule claims will generate an asset appendix.[5]

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has had a busy year of significant decisions for employers, including one in Entergy Mississippi, addressing the supervisory status of certain electric utility transmission and distribution dispatchers and resulting ineligibility to vote in a union election. This important decision is discussed further in our recent edition of Labor & Employment NOW.

Wholesale electricity sellers that are not government owned are subject to regulation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Obtaining FERC approval to sell wholesale electricity at “market-based rates” (which is nearly any sale regulated under the Federal Power Act that is not based on cost-of-service accounting) can be an intricate exercise, requiring the applicant to submit statistical horizontal market power screens. Within the FERC-regulated organized markets, the independent system operators and regional transmission organizations (ISOs/RTOs), monitoring staff and procedures, and transparent real-time and long-term demand and pricing information have led many market participants to conclude that the required market power statistical screen studies are of little value and function merely as an administrative impediment to doing business. On July 18, FERC issued a final rule, Refinements to Horizontal Market Power Analysis for Sellers in Certain Regional Transmission Organization and Independent System Operator Markets, Order No. 861, that relieves market-based rate (MBR) entities of the statistical screen requirements in some—but not all—of the ISO/RTO markets. This should streamline both the regulatory approval process for prospective MBR entities and the ongoing compliance process for MBR entities that file notices, triennial renewal applications, and similar documents with FERC.

Order No. 861 relieves MBR entities (most of which are independent generating companies and/or power marketers, and some of which are traditional franchised utilities) of the need to prepare and submit statistical screen analyses if the MBR applicant or holder is within the Northeastern and Central ISO/RTO markets—that is, ISO New England, New York ISO, PJM Interconnection, or Midcontinent Independent System Operator. In these ISO/RTOs, FERC found that the existence of both capacity and energy markets and the vigor of market monitoring and mitigation were sufficient to permit applicants to dispense with the horizontal screen studies.

FERC recently approved proposed Reliability Standard CIP-008-6, which expands the mandatory reporting requirements for Cyber Security Incidents that attempt to compromise the operation of the bulk power system. Under the new standard, electric utilities will need to implement more comprehensive internal controls for identifying, reviewing, and reporting cyber incidents and attempted cyber intrusions than are currently required. The new standard goes into effect on January 1, 2021.

As we reported, NERC developed the revised standard in response to the Commission’s directive to broaden the scope of mandatory reporting of Cyber Security Incidents. In particular, the Commission was concerned with the risk posed by malicious intrusion attempts that might facilitate subsequent efforts to harm the reliable operation of the bulk power system.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued three rules on June 19 that may give utilities new reasons to consider investing in certain plant modifications and reassessing the projected lifespans of their facilities. The rules also affect each state’s resource planning process and may contribute to changes in a state’s projected energy resource mixes. In response to the rules, utilities should be prepared for possible changes to state policies defining what constitutes “clean” energy and supporting reliability. The rules are intended to go into effect 30 days from their issuance. However, the implementation timeline for the rules is not certain because several states and organizations have stated they intend to challenge the rules in the federal courts.

The supply chain risks facing electric utilities have long been a concern for industry stakeholders and regulators alike. Reflecting those concerns, NERC submitted a report on May 28 to FERC recommending the expansion of requirements addressing supply chain cybersecurity risks for electric utilities, concluding that the scope of those requirements needed to expand to match the scope of the cybersecurity risk. The development of such revised standards will itself be a lengthy process and subject to additional FERC review.