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Utah Office of Consumer Services v. Public Service Commission of Utah

Supreme Court of Utah

June 27, 2019

Utah Office of Consumer Services and Utah Association of Energy Users, Petitioners,
Public Service Commission of Utah, Utah Division of Public Utilities, and PacifiCorp d/b/a Rocky Mountain Power, Respondents.

          On Petition for Review of Agency Decisions

          Robert J. Moore, Asst. Att'y Gen., Steven W. Snarr, Special Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for petitioner Utah Office of Consumer Services

          Gary A. Dodge, Phillip J. Russell, Salt Lake City, for petitioner Utah Association of Energy Users

          Melanie A. Reif, Salt Lake City, for respondent Public Service Commission of Utah

          Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Brent A. Burnett, Asst. Solic. Gen., Patricia E. Schmid, Asst. Att'y Gen., Justin C. Jetter, Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City for respondent Utah Division of Public Utilities

          R. Jeff Richards, Yvonne R. Hogle, D. Matthew Moscon, Bret W. Reich, Salt Lake City, for respondent PacifiCorp d/b/a Rocky Mountain Power

          Jenniffer Nelson Clark, Cameron L. Sabin, Salt Lake City, for amicus curiae Questar Gas Company d/b/a Dominion Energy Utah

          Associate Chief Justice Lee authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Durrant, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Justice Petersen joined.



         ¶1 The Utah Office of Consumer Services and the Utah Association of Energy Users ("Consumer Groups") challenge orders from the Public Service Commission in two related cases. We consolidated these cases because they raise the same threshold legal question-whether the Commission has the authority to impose "interim" rates as an element of the energy balancing account procedures described in Utah Code section 54-7-13.5. We hold that the Commission lacks this authority.

         ¶2 The interim rates at issue were imposed without a requirement that the public utility prove by "substantial evidence" that the costs incorporated in the rates were "prudently incurred" or "just and reasonable." We hold that this runs afoul of the controlling standard set forth in Utah Code section 54-7-13.5(2)(e)(ii). And we set aside the Commission's orders on this basis.


         ¶3 The Public Service Commission is authorized by statute to "supervise and regulate every public utility in this state." Utah Code § 54-4-1. One of the utilities regulated by the Commission is PacifiCorp, d/b/a Rocky Mountain Power, an electric power provider. PacifiCorp's rates are set by the Commission under terms and conditions set forth in the Utah code. A threshold step in the rate setting process is a "general rate" case.

         ¶4 In a general rate case the Commission estimates what it will cost PacifiCorp to provide electricity to customers. That estimate becomes the utility's "base rate." See id. § 54-7-12(1)(a)(i). Included in the base rate is a projected estimate of PacifiCorp's net power costs. In any given year, however, actual net power costs will vary from the costs predicted in a general rate case. With that in mind, the legislature created a mechanism to account for these differences-the "energy balancing account," or EBA. See id. § 54-7-13.5.

         ¶5 An EBA is an account used to track PacifiCorp's incurred net power costs. The account must be authorized by the Commission. It "become[s] effective" upon a finding that it is "(i) in the public interest; (ii) for prudently-incurred costs; and (iii) implemented at the conclusion of a general rate case." Id. § 54-7-13.5(2)(b). Once an EBA is approved, PacifiCorp is authorized to track the costs identified in that account. Such EBA costs include fuel, purchased power, and wheeling expenses-"less wholesale revenues." Id. § 54-7-13.5(1)(b).

         ¶6 PacifiCorp must annually file "a reconciliation of the energy balancing account with the [C]ommission" seeking either a recovery from or a refund to customers-based on the difference between the estimated net power costs reflected in the base rate and PacifiCorp's actual net power costs incurred that year. Id. § 54-7-13.5(2)(c). PacifiCorp bears the burden of proving that its costs are "prudently incurred." Id. § 54-7-13.5(2)(d). This annual filing is subject to review by the Division of Public Utilities. The Division conducts an audit and submits a report to the Commission. And the report is used by the Commission to determine whether a refund or recovery is appropriate. This process is repeated annually until a new base rate is set in a new general rate case.

         ¶7 PacifiCorp's rates have been established in accordance with the above procedures. In 2009, PacifiCorp filed an application for approval of a proposed EBA in accordance with the newly-passed EBA statute-Utah Code section 54-7-13.5. The Commission opened a docket to review the filing. Two years later, the Commission approved the EBA and ordered the implementation of a four-year EBA pilot program. The Commission asked the Division to file periodic reports evaluating the program. The Commission also sanctioned the use of an "interim rate" procedure as part of the EBA process. Under that process, PacifiCorp would file its annual EBA report comparing estimated power costs with its actual power costs. PacifiCorp would propose an interim rate based on the difference between estimated and actual costs. The Division would then review PacifiCorp's report and determine whether it departed from prior years' filings. If not, the Division would recommend that the Commission approve PacifiCorp's proposed interim rate. The Commission would review the Division's recommendation and hold a hearing. If an interim rate was approved by the Commission, the interim rate would go into effect while the Division completed its full audit of PacifiCorp's EBA report to determine if PacifiCorp's claimed costs were prudently incurred.

         ¶8 On August 30, 2012, the Commission issued an order eliminating the EBA interim rate process. The Commission indicated that it had failed to consider what costs associated with PacifiCorp's financial swap transactions[1] qualified for recovery under the EBA when it initially approved the interim rate process. In the Commission's view, a determination of what costs could be recovered for these swap transactions would require a significant amount of time and likely would result in highly contentious litigation in both the interim and final EBA hearings. So the Commission decided that an interim rate process was no longer appropriate for the EBA mechanism.

         ¶9 The Division filed its first report evaluating the EBA program in May 2014. The Division noted that it had been required to devote significant time to review PacifiCorp's filings due to the complexity of the EBA process. And it recommended some structural changes. The Commission, however, determined that it was too early to make any changes to the EBA program.

         ¶10 The Division filed its final report two years later. It recommended that "[t]he time period for [its] audits . . . be extended to one year and interim rates . . . be established until the Division can complete its audit." On February 16, 2017, the Commission issued an order adopting the Division's recommendation that interim rates be reinstated in the EBA mechanism. In so concluding, the Commission reasoned that circumstances had changed since its August 30, 2012 order rejecting interim rates. Specifically, the Commission asserted that the contentious issues and litigation surrounding PacifiCorp's swap transactions had been resolved. And for that reason the Commission concluded that an interim rate process was now appropriate.

         ¶11 The Commission asserted that the interim rate subsection of the general rate case statute, id. § 54-7-12(4)(a), authorized it to establish interim rates in an EBA proceeding. And it incorporated the procedural and timing requirements outlined in that subsection. First, the Commission defined PacifiCorp's burden of proof to be commensurate with the burden of proof standard established in subsection 54-7-12(4)(a)(iii). See id. ยง 54-7-12(4)(a)(iii) (stating that a utility "shall establish an adequate prima facie showing that the interim rate increase or decrease is justified"). The Commission asked the Division to review PacifiCorp's EBA filing and determine whether the filing "appears to not depart from prior years' filings." PacifiCorp would eventually have to prove by substantial evidence that its claimed costs were prudently incurred. But a lower standard was ...

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