DesertLink transmission project wins rate incentives under Section 219

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Federal energy regulators have granted a petition by the developer of a proposed electric transmission project in Nevada for certain transmission rate incentives available under federal law.  On August 19, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled on DesertLink, LLC's petition for declaratory order, with respect to DesertLink's new Harry Allen to Eldorado 500 kV transmission project.  The order grants DesertLink's requests for transmission rate incentives under section 219 of the Federal Power Act, and illustrates how those incentives operate.

DesertLink, a member of the LS Power Group, is the developer of a transmission project to be located in Nevada, but connected to a substation in the grid controlled by the California Independent System Operator Corporation.  CAISO designated the project for competitive bidding under its 2013-2014 transmission plan, and in January 2016 selected DesertLink as the approved project sponsor under its Order No. 1000-based process for eligible transmission developers to submit bids to develop and construct certain transmission projects.  The project is designed to have an in-service date of May 2020.

Rate incentives can be available to promote capital investments in certain transmission infrastructure.  The Federal Power Act authorizes the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to regulate the transmission and wholesale sales of electricity in interstate commerce.  Through the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress added a new section 219 to the Federal Power Act, directing the Commission to create rules establishing incentive-based rate treatments.  The Commission's Order No. 679 sets forth the processes by which a public utility may seek transmission rate incentives under section 219, and the Commission has issued a Transmission Incentives Policy Statement offering guidance on how it evaluates applications for transmission rate incentives.

Section 219 and Order No. 679 require an applicant for rate incentives to show that “the facilities for which it seeks incentives either ensure reliability or reduce the cost of delivered power by reducing transmission congestion.”  Order No. 679 established a rebuttable presumption that this standard is met if:
(1) the transmission project results from a fair and open regional planning process that considers and evaluates the project for reliability and/or congestion and is found to be acceptable to the Commission; or (2) a project has received construction approval from an appropriate state commission or state siting authority.
Order No. 679 also requires an applicant to demonstrate that there is a nexus between the incentive being sought and the investment being made.  The Commission clarified in Order No. 679-A that this "nexus test" is met when an applicant demonstrates, on a project-specific basis, that the total package of incentives requested is “tailored to address the demonstrable risks or challenges faced by the applicant.”

In DesertLink's case, on May 11, 2016, the applicant applied for transmission rate incentives, including (1) deferred recovery of all prudently incurred precommercial costs through the creation of a regulatory asset (regulatory asset incentive); (2) full recovery of 100 percent of prudently-incurred costs, including pre-commercial expenses and construction costs, if the Project is abandoned for reasons beyond DesertLink’s control (abandonment incentive); (3) use of a hypothetical capital structure consisting of 50 percent debt and 50 percent equity until the Project achieves commercial operation (hypothetical capital structure incentive); and (4) a 50-basis point adder to DesertLink’s Return on Equity (ROE) for participating in a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO), namely, CAISO (RTO participation incentive).

Last week, the Commission granted DesertLink's petition.  First, the Commission found that DesertLink is entitled to the rebuttable presumption that the Project will ensure reliability or reduce the cost of delivered power by reducing transmission congestion, because the CAISO transmission planning process found annual production cost benefits of $9.4 million in 2019 to $8.4 million in 2024 and beyond, and annual capacity benefits of $19.7 million in 2020 to $8.8 million in 2025 and beyond.

Next, the Commission found that DesertLink had demonstrated that its total package of requested incentives is tailored to address the demonstrable risks or challenges faced by DesertLink.  The Commission found that the regulatory asset treatment of pre-commercial costs appropriately addresses the risks and challenges of the Project, because it provides DesertLink with added upfront regulatory certainty, reduces interest expenses, and assists in the construction of the Project.  On the abandonment incentive, the Commission found that recovery of abandonment costs was an effective means to encourage transmission development by reducing the risk of non-recovery of costs.  Regarding a hypothetical capital structure, the Commission noted that its use "will aid DesertLink in raising capital during the construction phase of the Project, and will assist DesertLink in maintaining low debt costs while its actual debt-to-equity ratio varies."  The Commission also found DesertLink would qualify for the RTO participation incentive, based on its commitment to become a member of CAISO and to transfer operational control of the project to CAISO after placing it in service.

The Commission's determination takes the form of a declaratory order granting authorization for the rate incentives, but it does not directly authorize DesertLink to include the incentives in its filed rates.  As the Commission noted, "While our determination on DesertLink's Petition establishes whether it qualifies for the requested transmission rate incentives, if DesertLink seeks to put these incentives into effect, it must submit a subsequent filing under section 205 of the FPA."  In such a case, the applicant will need to make a variety of showings before including certain incentives in its rate base, including the justness and reasonableness of costs relating to pre-commercial, formation, and plant abandonment.  Nevertheless, securing the declaratory order gives DesertLink greater certainty about its qualification for these key incentives for electric transmission development.

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