Supreme Court rules on state energy incentives

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court has released its ruling on a case affecting how states may provide incentives for electric power generation.  In Hughes v. Talen Energy Marketing, LLC, the Court upheld a lower court's ruling invalidating a Maryland program to subsidize construction of new power plants.  The ruling provides important insight into how the Court views the boundary between federal and state jurisdiction over energy matters.

The Supreme Court of the United States.

The Hughes case involved a new Maryland program to encourage in-state generation capacity, and its relationship to federally blessed capacity market.  Under the Federal Power Act, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has exclusive jurisdiction over wholesale sales of electricity in the interstate market, while States regulate retail electricity sales. 

For years,  Mid-Atlantic regional grid operator PJM Interconnection has held capacity auctions to identify need for new generation and compensate generators for development.  PJM's auctions have been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under the Federal Power Act.  But due to concern that the PJM auction was failing to encourage development of sufficient new in-state generation, Maryland enacted its own regulatory program.  Under that state program, Maryland held a competitive process to select a developer for a new power plant, and required load-serving entities to enter into a 20-year pricing contract (called a "contract for differences") with the developer.  The developer would still sell its capacity to PJM, but would receive extra money under the state program to make up the difference between the PJM market price and the contract price.

But incumbent generators challenged the new Maryland program; a federal district court issued a declaratory judgment holding that Maryland's program improperly sets the rate the developer receives for interstate wholesale capacity sales to PJM.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed, finding that Maryland's program was preempted because it impermissibly conflicts with FERC policies.  The case then came to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Supreme Court's April 19, 2016 decision affirms the lower courts' rulings.  The Court agreed with the Fourth Circuit's judgment "that Maryland's program sets an interstate wholesale rate, contravening the FPA's division of authority between state and federal regulators."  In the majority opinion's words, "States may not seek to achieve ends, however legitimate, through regulatory means that intrude on FERC's authority over interstate wholesale rates, as Maryland has done here."

The Hughes ruling sheds light on how the Court might view other state programs to incentivize new or clean generation.  That said, the Court emphasized that its holding in Hughes is limited -- that it rejected Maryland's program "only because it disregards an interstate wholesale rate required by FERC."  The Court explicitly said it would not address "the permissibility of various other measures States might employ to encourage development of new or clean generation," such as tax incentives, land grants, direct subsidies, construction of state-owned generation facilities, or re-regulation of the energy sector.

The majority opinion concludes with a reminder that "[s]o long as a State does not condition payment of funds on capacity clearing the auction, the State's program would not suffer from the fatal defect that renders Maryland's program unacceptable."  This suggests one potential path for permissible state incentives for electric power generation.

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