Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Utilities Law
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MISO, a regional association, monitors and manages the electricity transmission grid in several midwestern and southern states, plus Manitoba, Canada, balancing the load, setting competitive prices for transmission services, and planning and supervising expansion of the system. Until 2011, if MISO decided that another transmission facility was needed in the region, the MISO member that served the area in which the facility would be built had the right of first refusal to build it, pursuant to the contract among the MISO members. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Order No. 1000 required transmission providers to participate in regional transmission planning to identify worthwhile projects, and to allocate the costs of the projects to the parts of the region that would benefit the most from the projects. To facilitate its implementation, the order directed providers “to remove provisions from [FERC] jurisdictional tariffs and agreements that grant incumbent transmission providers a federal right of first refusal to construct transmission facilities selected in a regional transmission plan for purposes of cost allocation.” FERC believed that competition would result in lower rates to consumers of electricity. The Seventh Circuit denied petitions for review of the order. The electric companies did not show that the right of first refusal was in the public interest View "MISO Transmission Owners v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm'n" on Justia Law

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Until 1997, Illinois residents could only purchase power from the local public utility, whose rates were regulated by the Commerce Commission (ICC). The 1997 Electric Service Customer Choice and Rate Relief Law allows residents to buy electricity from their local public utility, another utility, or an Alternative Retail Electric Supplier (ARES). The ICC was not given rate-making authority over ARESs, but was given certain oversight responsibilities, 220 ILCS 5/16-115. The Law did not explicitly provide a mechanism for recovering damages from an ARES related to the rates. In 2012, Zahn began purchasing electricity from NAPG, after receiving an offer of a “New Customer Rate” of $.0499 per kilowatt hour in her first month of service, followed by a “market-based variable rate.” Zahn never received NAPG’s “New Customer Rate.” NAPG charged her $.0599 per kilowatt hour for the first two months, followed by a rate higher than Zahn’s local public utility charged. Zahn filed a class-action complaint, claiming violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment. The court dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, or for failure to state a claim. The Seventh Circuit certified, to the Illinois Supreme Court, the question of whether the ICC has exclusive jurisdiction to hear Zahn’s claims, noting that Illinois appellate courts are in conflict. View "Zahn v. N. Am. Power & Gas, LLC" on Justia Law

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MISO, an organization of independent transmission-owning utilities, has linked the transmission lines of its members into a single interconnected grid across 11 states. The Generators, which operate 150-megawatt wind-powered electric generation facilities in Illinois, wish to connect to the system run by MISO. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), acting under 16 U.S.C. 824(a), has standardized the process: the Generators submitted requests to MISO, which then produced studies (paid for by the Generators) to assess potential impact on the grid and calculate the cost of necessary upgrades. After the studies were complete and agreements signed, MISO notified the Generators of a “significant error” that failed to include certain upgrades and that the Generators would either have to agree to fewer megawatts or pay for additional upgrades estimated to cost $11.5 million. MISO presented superseding Agreements to both Generators. The companies refused to sign. FERC found that the Generators should pay for the additional network upgrades. The Seventh Circuit denied a petition for review. The record failed to show that the Generators relied on the original, mistaken studies or that reducing the output would have made their farms economically unsustainable. They also had an exit option. The court noted that the Generators apparently built their wind farms despite the dispute. View "Pioneer Trail Wind Farm, LLC v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm'n" on Justia Law

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A Regional Transmission Organization is a voluntary association primarily of utilities that either own electrical transmission lines that comprise a regional electrical grid or generate electricity that is transmitted to the customers in the region. Members of a Regional Transmission Organization and the Illinois Commerce Commission, on behalf of the largest electrical utility in Illinois, (collectively PJM) obtained a remand of an order of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2009. That order allocated costs for certain new high‐voltage network transmission lines that are part of a regional grid that includes the western utilities, but are all located in PJM’s eastern region and primarily benefit that region. Unhappy with the order issued on remand, PJM returned to court. The Seventh Circuit again remanded, acknowledging that the benefits of new facilities to the utilities may be unquantifiable because they depend on the likelihood and magnitude of outages and other contingencies. The order should not shift a grossly disproportionate share of costs to western utilities, given that the projects will confer only future, speculative, and limited benefits to those utilities.View "IL Commerce Comm'n v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm'n" on Justia Law

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Between 1994 and 1999 Commonwealth Edison modified five Illinois coal-fired power plants that had been operating on August 7, 1977, and were, therefore, grandfathered against a permitting requirement applicable to any “major emitting facility” built or substantially modified after that date in parts of the country subject to the rules about prevention of significant deterioration, 42 U.S.C. 7475(a), until the modification. The permit requires installation of “the best available control technology for each pollutant subject to regulation.” Commonwealth Edison did not obtain permits. There was no challenge until 2009, a decade after completion of the modifications. The district court dismissed a challenge as untimely. After finishing the modifications, Commonwealth Edison sold the plants to Midwest. The federal government and Illinois (plaintiffs) argued that the district court allowed corporate restructuring to wipe out liability for ongoing pollution. Midwest and its corporate parent (Edison Mission) filed bankruptcy petitions after the appeal was argued. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Midwest cannot be liable because its predecessor would not have been liable had it owned the plants continuously. Commonwealth Edison needed permits before undertaking the modifications. The court rejected arguments of continuing-violation and continuing-injury. View "United States v. Midwest Generation, LLC" on Justia Law

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The 1987 Public Utilities Act, 220 ILCS 5/8-403.1, was intended to encourage development of power plants that convert solid waste to electricity. Local electric utilities were required to enter into 10-year agreements to purchase power from such plants designated as “qualified” by the Illinois Commerce Commission, at a rate exceeding that established by federal law. The state compensated electric utilities with a tax credit. A qualified facility was obliged to reimburse the state for tax credits its customers had claimed after it had repaid all of its capital costs for development and implementation. Many qualified facilities failed before they repaid their capital costs, so that Illinois never got its tax credit money back. The Act was amended in 2006, to establish a moratorium on new Qualified Facilities, provide additional grounds for disqualifying facilities from the subsidy, and expand the conditions that trigger a facility’s liability to repay electric utilities’ tax credits. The district court held that the amendment cannot be applied retroactively. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The amendment does not clearly indicate that the new repayment conditions apply to monies received prior to the amendment and must be construed prospectively. View "Illinois v. Chiplease, Inc." on Justia Law

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Control of most of the U.S. electrical grid is divided among Regional Transmission Organizations, voluntary associations of utilities that own interconnected transmission lines. Power plants and other electrical companies involved with the regional grid can also be RTO members. An RTO sought approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to impose a tariff on its members to pay for construction of new high-voltage power lines that will primarily transmit electricity generated by remote wind farms. Every state in the region, except Kentucky, encourages or mandates that utilities obtain a percentage of their electricity supply from renewable sources. The cost of the project is to be shared by utilities drawing power from the grid according to each utility’s share of the region’s total wholesale consumption of electricity. The RTO previously allocated the cost of expanding or upgrading the grid to utilities nearest a proposed transmission line, on the theory that they would get the most benefit. FERC approved the rate design and pilot projects. The RTO negotiated a rate with another RTO to share the costs of some upgrades with mutual benefits. Members of the RTO challenged the approval and the agreement and some announced their departure from the RTO. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the orders, but dismissed as premature the claims of departing members concerning their liability and remanded with respect to export pricing in connection with the agreement. View "Am. Mun. Power, Inc. v. Fed. Energy Regulatory Comm'n" on Justia Law

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Wabash is a power generation cooperative. Northeastern purchases electricity from Wabash and resells it. In 1977, they entered into a contract: Northeastern agreed to purchase electricity from Wabash for 40 years at rates to be set by the Wabash board of directors “[s]ubject to the approval of the Public Service Commission of Indiana.” Revised rates would not be effective unless approved by the “applicable regulatory authorities,” and the federal Rural Electrification Administration. In 2012 Northeastern sought a state court declaratory judgment that Wabash breached the contract by taking action in 2004 that had the effect of transferring regulation of its rates from the Indiana Commission to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Wabash removed the case under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a), arguing that the claim arises under the Federal Power Act, 16 U.S.C. 791a. The district court denied remand and granted a preliminary injunction. The Seventh Circuit vacated, holding that federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction. Northeastern’s claim is limited to construction of the contract and does not necessarily raise a question of federal law. While Northeastern may eventually use a favorable state court judgment to seek permission to terminate its obligations under the tariff filed with FERC,that cannot be achieved in this suit View "NE Rural Elec. Membership Corp. v. Wabash Valley Power Assoc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff owns 2,485 acres containing Indiana's only antebellum plantation and 2,000 acres of "classified forest," with endangered species habitats. A utility company has a lease for storing and extracting oil and natural gas on portions of the property. The Lease continues so long as "oil or gas is produced in paying quantities" or "the Property continues to be used for the underground storage of gas" and will terminate upon the utility's surrender or failure to make payments. The lease contains provisions to protect historic sites and to calculate damage to trees, requires notice of utility activity, and requires that the utility's use be "as minimally necessary." Plaintiff sought damages and to terminate the lease and evict the utility. The district court entered judgment for the utility, finding that a disagreement about the use of land was not an express reason for termination and that the lease specifically provided that damages were the proper remedy. Plaintiff dismissed the damages claim with prejudice to appeal the ejectment claim. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Plaintiff did not show that damages are inadequate to compensate for the harm to its property.

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The Wisconsin smelting plant owed more than $1.3 million in delinquent utility charges to the local municipal utility when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Months later, despite the automatic stay, the utility implemented a process pursuant to sections 66.0809 and 66.0627, Wisconsin Statutes and local ordinance, under which unpaid utility bills become a lien against the property. The bankruptcy court and district court found that none of the exceptions to the automatic stay applied to the debt, which constituted more than one-third of the utility's operating revenue. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, holding that no exception to the stay applied. The utility did not obtain a pre-petition security interest in the plant property by providing service or billing. The utility bills were not a tax or special assessment.