Energy News Network: Michigan PURPA Rulings a ‘Mixed Bag’ for Independent Power Producers

Michigan PURPA Rulings a ‘Mixed Bag’ for Independent Power Producers

By Andy Balaskovitz

Independent power producers say recent rulings by Michigan regulators provide short-term development opportunities but also more uncertainty in the coming years as they negotiate contracts with a major utility.

On October 5, the Michigan Public Service Commission issued multiple orders related to the prices Consumers Energy pays to independent producers under federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) contracts.

One ruling allows for up to 150 megawatts worth of projects to qualify for PURPA contracts at rates that advocates say are more favorable for developers. The rates had been on hold for months as regulators settled questions around avoided costs and contract terms. Avoided costs are the rates paid by law to independent producers based on the price of the utility building the generation itself.

However, it’s unclear how long those terms will stay in place or how much opportunity there will be in the future. In the coming months, the MPSC may allow Consumers to restructure those rates and contract terms in ways that developers say would stifle PURPA contracts. While the most recent rulings apply to Consumers, DTE Energy’s avoided costs are also under consideration.

Clean energy advocates and independent power producers have been closely following the cases for more than two years as PURPA rules could determine the level of third-party solar development in the state. The debate over PURPA and solar development has played out in multiple states in recent years.

Margrethe Kearney, staff attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which intervened in Consumers’ rate cases, said the rulings effectively delay certainty over PURPA contracts by pushing them into Consumers’ IRP, which won’t be finalized for another six months.

“That undercurrent is a troubling,” Kearney said. “Do we really want a commission that isn’t making timely decisions and bouncing issues from one contested case to another?”
If the MPSC doesn’t agree with Consumers’ proposed avoided costs and contract terms, the company still has the ability to withdraw its IRP, while granting the utility’s request could harm developers, Kearney said.

“They’ve suggested that if any part of their plan is not approved, they could pull the whole thing,” Kearney said. “The change in the contract terms would strike a huge blow to independent power producers.”

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