IRS Issues Guidance on Tax Treatment of Energy Savings Performance Contracts

On January 19, 2017, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued Rev. Proc. 2017-19, 2016-6 I.R.B. (the Rev. Proc.), providing a safe harbor under which it will not challenge the tax treatment of an Energy Savings Performance Contract Energy Savings Agreement (ESPC ESA) as a service contract under Section 7701(e)(3). While the application of the guidance is limited to the ESPC ESA context, the Rev. Proc. nonetheless provides potential insight into the IRS’s views of other power purchase agreements for the purchase of renewable energy generally.

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Government Appeal of Alta Wind Supports Decision to File Suit Now

As you may know, several taxpayers have sued the federal government because they believe they were underpaid under the Section 1603 grant program. Indeed, the taxpayer in the Alta Wind case was successful in convincing the court that the government had inappropriately reduced the amount of its 1603 grant by approximately $200 million. For more information about the Alta Wind case, see our previous On the Subject, “Act Now to Preserve Your Section 1603 Grant.” We have been following these cases, and believe that the grant applicants have strong arguments in their favor. As expected, right before the New Year, the US government appealed the Alta Wind case, asking the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to overturn that decision.

Taxpayers with the same or similar legal issue need to make a decision of what to do. We strongly recommend that you file your case immediately against the government seeking redress for the inappropriate reduction in the amount of the 1603 grant that the government paid to you. If you file suit, we expect the court will stay your case pending the outcome of the Alta Wind appeal. Nevertheless, we believe that this is the best course of action for the reasons outlined below:

  • First, filing suit now will toll the statute of limitations on your claims. Every case must be filed within the statute of limitations. If you do not file your suit within the statute of limitations, you will not be permitted to file suit in the future. Appeals can take years to resolve. If you wait until the court rules on the Alta Wind appeal you risk losing your claim because the statute of limitations may have expired by the time that case is fully decided. Filing your claim now will stop the limitations period from running, preserving your ability to have your claims heard by the court.
  • Second, we expect that the appeals court will affirm the taxpayer’s win in Alta Wind. If you have a pending case in court when that occurs, you will be in a better position than those taxpayers who wait to file suit because the government will have to address your case immediately after the appeal is decided and the stay is lifted. Moreover, filing suit and “getting in line” early will be especially important if the government tries to settle the claims against it because you will be able to argue that you should be entitled to a greater percentage of your claim than if you had filed after the appellate court rules against the government.
  • Lastly, filing suit now will increase your ability to withstand any attempts by the US Department of the Treasury to retroactively change the 1603 grant program. The new administration has taken over, and it is possible that it could implement rules for the Section 1603 grant program that are harmful to your claim and try to implement them retroactively. That is an issue that would have to be litigated, but your argument would be easier to make if you have a pending case at the time the rules are implemented.

We estimate that the cost of filing your suit will be very low, but the benefits can be very important to positioning yourself for the best possible outcome.

Additionally, we would encourage you to join forces with other taxpayers that have the same or similar issue, and file an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief in the pending Alta Wind appeals case. We are in the process of assembling a coalition of taxpayers to file an amicus brief. The amicus brief would, of course, be in support of the taxpayer’s case and legal theory, which could also improve your case in court.

Please contact us if you would like to discuss this matter further.

FERC Issues Policy Statement on Storage Resources with Multiple Payment Streams

Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a Policy Statement to provide guidance on the ability of electric storage resources to recover costs through both cost-based and market-based rates concurrently. The Policy Statement appears intended to reconcile two lines of FERC precedent on this topic. The issue of multiple payment streams is one of particular concern for electric storage resources that, due to their technological capabilities, can switch from one type of service to another almost instantaneously. The Policy Statement is separate from FERC’s ongoing Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding electric storage resource participation in wholesale electricity markets (RTO/ISO markets), discussed here and here.

FERC’s guidance stems from two orders with opposite outcomes – Nevada Hydro and Western Grid. In the 2008 Nevada Hydro order, FERC denied a hydroelectric storage project’s petition to be treated as a transmission facility that would receive payments through cost-based rates. Then, in the 2010 Western Grid order, FERC granted the applicant’s request for cost-based rate recovery for its sodium sulfur batteries that would provide voltage support and thermal overload protection for transmission facilities.

FERC identified three major concerns present in scenarios where an electric storage resource seeks both cost-based and market-based rates: (1) the potential for cost-based and market-based rate recovery to result in double recovery; (2) the potential for cost-based rates to inappropriately suppress competitive market prices; and (3) the level of control of a storage resource exercised by a RTO/ISO that could jeopardize the RTO/ISO’s independence from market participants.

To address the concern of double recovery, FERC suggested that crediting any market revenues back to the cost-based ratepayers is a possible solution. Such crediting may vary depending on how the cost-based rate is structured; FERC provided examples of an up-front reduction in the cost-based rate or a later crediting procedure for cost-based ratepayers. Addressing the issue of suppressing competitive market prices, FERC disagreed with commenters that allowing market participants with cost-based rate recovery to also sell at market-based rates would create an adverse impact on other market competitors. FERC pointed out that some vertically integrated public utilities currently recover costs through cost-based retail rates while also making market-based rate sales to others. Finally, to maintain RTO/ISO independence, FERC clarified that RTO/ISO dispatch of a storage resource should receive priority over the resource’s provision of market-based rate services and that the provision of market-based rate services should be under the control of the resource owner rather than the RTO/ISO.

FERC Commissioner LaFleur dissented from the Policy Statement, arguing that its sweeping conclusions related to storage resources may be read to reflect FERC’s views about the impact of multiple payment streams more generally. Commissioner LaFleur also disagreed with FERC’s decision to separate the issues from FERC’s pending Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on storage participation.

Environmental Organizations File Litigation Briefs Supporting New York’s ZEC Program

Two environmental organizations, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), have weighed in to defend the legality of New York State’s Zero Emissions Credit (ZEC) program in ongoing litigation concerning that program.  This blog is tracking the ongoing litigation and this article summarizes the arguments made by EDF and NRDC in their recent filings.

The ZEC program, which was approved by the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC) in August 2016, compensates eligible facilities for the zero-emissions attributes of produced nuclear energy through long-term contracts with New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) for the purchase of ZECs.  New York’s load-serving entities are required to purchase those ZECs from NYSERDA in proportion to their share of statewide load. The NYPSC determined that New York’s FitzPatrick, Ginna and Nine Mile facilities were eligible to participate in the ZEC program.

In October 2016, various electric generators in New York and surrounding states filed a complaint against the NYPSC in federal court, asserting that the ZEC program intrudes on the exclusive authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) by “effectively replacing the [wholesale electricity market] auction clearing price” received by the nuclear facilities with a higher price and thus artificially suppressing wholesale electricity prices in the New York market.  The NYPSC and the owners of the New York nuclear facilities moved to dismiss the complaint in December and both EDF and NRDC recently filed briefs in support of the motions to dismiss.

The environmental organizations (like the NYPSC) deny that the ZEC program intrudes on FERC’s authority.  They argue that the program compensates the nuclear power providers for the environmental attributes of their electricity, rather than sets wholesale electricity prices.  The environmental organizations’ support stems from the similarities between the ZEC program and renewable energy credits, which are a key component of many state renewable energy programs and might be threatened by a judicial opinion extending FERC’s exclusive jurisdiction to the sale of unbundled environmental attributes.

The outcome of litigation over New York’s ZEC program will likely have impacts outside New York.  In Illinois, the recently enacted Future Energy Jobs Bill establishes a Zero Emission Standard program that utilizes the same framework to support nuclear generation facilities in Illinois.  Illinois and other states considering such programs will be watching the outcome of the litigation in New York to determine whether and how to implement their own programs to support struggling nuclear facilities.

Some Considerations for Comments to FERC on Electric Storage NOPR

As this blog previously reported here, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) last month with the goal of requiring organized wholesale electricity markets (RTO/ISO markets) to modify their tariffs and rules to accommodate electric storage resources. FERC has received several comments and recently agreed to extend the deadline for filing comments until February 13, 2017.

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IRS Issues Additional Guidance on Beginning of Construction Rules for Renewable Projects

On December 15, 2016, the Internal Revenue Service released Notice 2017-04, which provides welcome guidance on how to meet the “beginning of construction” requirements for wind and other qualified facilities. There has been much uncertainty about when construction of these types of facilities begins for renewable energy tax credit purposes. The Notice (1) extends the “Continuity Safe Harbor” placed in service date for projects that started construction before 2014; (2) provides that the “combination of methods” rule set forth in prior guidance only applies to facilities on which construction begins after June 6, 2016; and (3) clarifies that for purposes of the 80/20 Rule, the cost of new property includes all costs properly included in the depreciable basis of the new property.

Read the full article here.

CDFI Fund Announces $7 Billion Allocation of New Markets Tax Credits

On November 17, 2016, the US Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI Fund) announced the largest single round award of New Market Tax Credit (NMTC) allocations since the program’s creation in 2001. One hundred and twenty organizations, headquartered in 36 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, were awarded a total of $7 billion of NMTC allocations.

Read the full article here.

FERC Proposes to Remove Barriers to Wholesale Market Participation for Electricity Storage and Distributed Energy Resource Aggregators

On November 17, 2016, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) that, if adopted, would require organized wholesale electricity markets (RTO/ISO markets) to modify their open access transmission tariffs and market rules to accommodate electric storage resources and allow participation of distributed energy resource aggregators. This NOPR is part of FERC’s ongoing efforts to remove barriers to participation in wholesale electric markets. FERC recognizes that electric storage resources and distributed energy resources are often constrained by antiquated wholesale market rules that were, as FERC puts it, “developed in an era when traditional generation resources were the only resources participating in the organized wholesale electricity markets.” This NOPR will promote far greater market participation by storage resources of all types, including batteries, flywheels, compressed air and pumped hydro, as well as distributed resources such as distributed generation, electric storage, thermal storage and electric vehicles.

For electric storage resources, which are defined as resources capable of receiving electric energy from the grid and storing it for later injection of electricity back to the grid, the NOPR would require each RTO/ISO to implement tariff provisions that will:

  • Ensure an electric storage resource is eligible to provide services it is technically capable of providing
  • Incorporate bidding parameters that reflect the physical and operational characteristics of the resources
  • Ensure that electric storage resources can set the market clearing price as a seller or buyer
  • Establish a minimum size requirement that does not exceed 100 kW
  • Specify that sales and purchases must be made at the wholesale locational marginal price

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Court Awards $206 Million to Alta Wind Projects in Section 1603 Grant Litigation

The US Court of Federal Claims awarded damages of more than $206 million to the Plaintiffs in a case with respect to the cash grant program under Section 1603 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the Section 1603 Grant). In its opinion, which was unsealed on Monday, October 31, the Court held that the US Treasury Department (Treasury) had underpaid the Section 1603 Grants arising from projects in the Alta Wind Energy Center because it had incorrectly reduced the Plaintiffs’ eligible basis in the projects. The Court rejected Treasury’s argument that the Plaintiffs’ basis in the facilities was limited to development and construction costs, and accepted Plaintiffs’ position that the arm’s-length purchase price of the projects prior to their placed-in-service date was a reasonable starting place for the projects’ value. The Court determined that the facilities, having not yet been placed in service and having only one customer pursuant to a master power purchase agreement (PPA), could not have any value assigned to goodwill or going concern value which would reduce the amount of eligible costs for purposes of the Section 1603 Grant. The Court noted that the transactions surrounding the sales of the facilities were conducted at arm’s length by economically self-interested parties and that the purchase prices and side agreements were not marked by “peculiar circumstances” which influenced the parties to agree to a price highly in excess of fair market value. Importantly, the Court also held that PPAs were more like land leases which should not be viewed as separate intangible assets from the underlying facilities, and are thus eligible property for purposes of the Section 1603 Grant. Finally, the Court accepted the Plaintiffs’ pro rata allocation of costs between eligible and ineligible property.

This significant decision is welcomed by the renewable energy industry and is an affirmation of a long held view by many taxpayers as to an appropriate measure of cost basis in the context of the Section 1603 Grant. The decision may also serve as much-needed guidance for determining cost basis for purposes of the investment tax credit under Code Section 48.

McDermott will be issuing a full On the Subject review and analysis of the Court’s opinion in the coming days.

Final Regulations Define ‘Real Property’ for REITs: Considerations for Renewable Energy and Transmission Assets

On August 31, 2016, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and US Department of the Treasury issued final regulations (Final Regulations) under section 856 of the Internal Revenue Code to clarify the definition of “real property” for purposes of sections 856 through 859 relating to real estate investment trusts (REITs). The Final Regulations largely follow proposed regulations issued in 2014 (Proposed Regulations) by providing a safe harbor list of assets and establishing facts and circumstances tests to analyze other assets.

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