On June 7th, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion in Illinois Commerce Commission, et al., v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, affirming the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc. (MISO) Multi-Value Project (MVP) tariff for financing new high-voltage power lines that largely serve remote wind farms.

Six issues were before the court: (i) the proportionality of benefits to costs for MVPs; (ii) the procedural adequacy of the previous proceedings; (iii) the propriety of an energy-cost allocator for MVPs; (iv) whether MISO should be allowed to add an MVP fee to utilities belonging to the PJM Interconnection, LLC (“PJM”); (v) whether MISO should be permitted to assess some costs associated with MVPs; and (vi) whether the Commission’s approval of the MVP tariff violates the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution by invading state rights. The fourth and fifth issues were remanded. And the court quickly dismissed the sixth issue at the outset of the opinion, stating that the arguments amounted to an assertion that the MVP tariff “provides a carrot that states won’t be able to resist eating.” This entry therefore focuses on issues (i) – (iii).

The court addressed issues (i) and (ii) together. There are two important takeaways in this section of the opinion. First, MISO’s burden of establishing rough proportionality of costs to benefits under the Federal Power Act arguably changed in the name of policy. The court stated that “The promotion of wind power by the MVP program deserves emphasis” and that wind power will probably “grow fast and confer substantial benefits on the region.” The court determined there was “no reason to think these benefits will be denied to particular subregions of MISO” and found that other benefits (e.g., reliability) were real, even though they couldn’t be calculated in advance.   The court then went on to find that MISO’s and FERC’s efforts to match cost and benefits, even if crude, were sufficient. It is not entirely clear how this aspect of the opinion can be reconciled with the court’s previous opinion in Illinois Commerce Commission v. FERC. But it appears the policy of promoting wind power influenced the decision in this case. Moreover, the court rejected requests for an evidentiary hearing on this issue, on the basis that requiring such proceedings after two years of appeal “would create unconscionable regulatory delay.” 

The second takeaway is a comment made by the court in response to a criticism raised by the State of Michigan, which claimed it would not benefit from out-of-state MVPs because a provision in Michigan law forbids Michigan utilities from counting renewable energy generated out of the state to satisfy requirements under the state’s Clean, Renewable, and Efficiency Act of 2008. The court stated that Michigan cannot discriminate against out-of-state renewable energy without violating the commerce clause of Article I of the Constitution. This statement could have significant ripple effects on similar laws around the country that give preference to in-state renewable resources or impose limits on imported generation.

The policy of promoting wind development also seemed to influence issue (iii). The court found that the objection to an energy allocator was refuted by the fact that a primary goal of the MVPs is to increase the supply of renewable energy. It acknowledged that wind production is intermittent and not a reliable source of energy to meet peak demand. But the court concluded that MVP lines will enable plants to serve off-peak demand and stated that “MISO and FERC were entitled to conclude that the benefits of more and cheaper wind power predominate over the benefits of greater reliability brought about by improvement in meeting peak demand.”