Sara Bergan

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Sara Bergan is an associate in the firm's Energy Development group, where she concentrates her practice on renewable and low-carbon energy technologies.


Articles By This Author

Value-of-Solar is Delayed; Minnesota Community Solar Gardens Move Forward

Yesterday, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (“MPUC”) approved Xcel Energy’s first Minnesota-based Community Solar Garden (CSG) program. After Xcel’s initial program filing was rejected by the MPUC in April, Xcel filed a revised CSG tariff with the MPUC in June. In a related filing, Xcel also argued that a  value of solar (“VOS”) rate for CSG projects was not in the public interest and applicable retail rates should be used for the program instead. The MPUC approved Xcel’s basic program, with relatively minor modifications and at the applicable retail rates. As a result, Xcel customers will soon be able to invest in a solar project without having to own a home or the perfect roof for solar.

Many of the details were already prescribed by statute (Minn. Stat.§ 216B.1641): 

  • Subscribers to a CSG will purchase one or more 200-watt subscriptions up to 120 percent of their energy load
  • CSG projects must include at least 5 subscribers with no single subscriber amounting to more than 40% of the total CSG capacity
  • Each CSG is to be no more than 1MW in size, but the program as a whole remains uncapped

The statute also requires that Xcel Energy purchase all of the energy output of a CSG system at a VOS rate once it is approved by the MPUC. Many interested parties have invested considerable time and resources into developing a way to calculate the costs and benefits distributed solar deliver to a utility, its customers and society (more on that process here, here and here). Last spring, the MPUC approved a final methodology to calculate VOS rates - the culmination of that work. Xcel’s CSG tariff filing was then the first test of the methodology and the CSG program its intended first application. 

Ultimately, the MPUC approved the use of the applicable retail rates instead of a VOS rate as Xcel requested. With parties diverging on the VOS rate itself as well as what, if any, additional incentive may be needed to make the projects financeable, the MPUC opted to spend more time getting any future VOS rate and associated incentive right. As that work continues, the program will go forward with the rate for immediate CSG projects being the applicable retail rate and an additional 2-3 cent adder for associated solar renewable energy certificates transferred to the utility. This amounts to rates from approximately 11.5¢/kWh for larger systems subscribed by commercial and industrial customers to 15¢/kWh for smaller systems subscribed by residential customers. 

Will such rates “reasonably allow for the creation, financing, and accessibility” of CSG projects under Minnesota law? One of these days, perhaps before the Harvest Moon, we will see whether Minnesota solar gardens are ready to sprout.

For more information, please contact Drew Moratzka or Sara Bergan.

EPA Unveils Sweeping New CO2 Rules

Yesterday EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy unveiled the highly anticipated carbon dioxide rules for existing power plants.  Dubbed the “Clean Power Plan,” the rules taken together likely will have a significant impact on industrial and other consumers of electricity as well as developers of natural gas-fired and renewable  generation (e.g., solar, biomass and wind). Stoel Rives attorneys with significant Clean Air Act experience react to the new rules in a client alert available here.

Northern States Power Company Issues 100 MW Solar RFP

* 5/14/14 update: FAQs released 

Northern States Power Company (d/b/a Xcel Energy) released its long-awaited solar request for proposals (RFP) today. Although it had earlier suggested the RFP would be for up to 150 MW, today’s RFP seeks up to 100 MW of PV resources. The Company explained that the amount acquired through this RFP may ultimately be impacted by other Minnesota Public Utility Commission decisions involving solar resources (see more on at least one related proceeding here).  

Eligible proposals must be at least 5 MW AC and the company expressed caution about bids coming in over 50 MW in light of the company’s total solar needs being in flux. Xcel continues to desire projects that will be in commercial operation by December 31, 2016 in order to take full advantage of the 30 percent Investment Tax Credit (ITC). Further the company desires to fulfill the requirement through power purchase agreements (the associated model PPA is available on Xcel's website here), though it is open to bids with different ownership structures. Xcel has indicated an interest in “proposals that offer PPAs along with an indicative offer for ownership in the project through an affiliate of NSP”. Proposals are due June 20, 2014 with selections to be filed with the Commission in late October, 2014.  

Court Declares Minnesota Coal Law Unconstitutional: Electrons Favor the Laws of Physics to Those of Governments

Minnesota legislators passed the Next Generation Energy Act in 2007 which, in part, established power sector standards for carbon dioxide emissions. As a result Minn. Stat. §216H.03 now provides that no person shall:

  • Construct within a state a new large energy facility that would contribute to statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions;
  • Import or commit to import from outside the state power from a new large energy facility that would contribute to statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions; or
  • Enter into a new long-term power purchase agreement that would increase statewide power sector carbon dioxide emissions. For the purposes of this section, a long-term power purchase agreement means an agreement to purchase 50 megawatts of capacity or more for a term exceeding five years.

In 2011 neighboring state North Dakota, along with coal and utility interests, challenged the law and named as defendants the Commissioners of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Commerce. Today District Court Judge Susan Nelson ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on cross motions for summary judgment. She determined the second and third provisions of the above statute unconstitutional, finding that they are per se invalid under the dormant Commerce Clause. Minnesota Governor Dayton quickly responded to the ruling with a press statement articulating his intentions to vigorously defend the law and appeal the decision.

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Fake Punt! Minnesota Commission Immediately Reevaluates Motion, Advances Solar Plus One (or more) Gas Plants

In a follow up to our prior post, we now report that the Minnesota Commission subsequently modified its initial decision to clarify that Xcel Energy is directed to negotiate a power purchase agreement with the solar bidder, which will be reviewed by the Commission to ensure the terms are consistent with the public interest. Xcel is also directed to negotiate with the natural gas project bidders and develop pricing terms for its own natural gas project. Here is the text from the revised motion.

Although all terms will be reviewed by the Commission, Xcel Energy's Minnesota ratepayers will likely have a utility-scale solar project and at least one natural gas project to meet capacity needs in the 2017-2019 timeframe. And it's fair to state the Commission's decision puts solar in the red-zone, first and goal.

For more information, please contact Drew Moratzka or Sara Bergan.

Minnesota Commission Punts on Resource Decision: Keeps Solar in the Game

After the years of inconclusive resource planning, months of contested case proceedings, and days of oral argument, discussion and review that led to today’s deliberations, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (“Commission”) unanimously decided not to decide. The ultimate question before the Commission was what capacity needs had been determined in the record and what should be done to fill that need on Xcel Energy’s system. At the turn of the new year, the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) answers to these questions made national news by finding that the solar bid provided the best value for ratepayers (see our blog on that here). The ALJ made his determination, in part, based on new modeling done at the request of the Commission given the significant changes in circumstances that had occurred since docket was opened (e.g., Xcel Energy acquired 750MW of new wind and Minnesota passed a Solar Energy Standard). In light of the changed circumstances and uncertain need, the ALJ recommended selection of the solar resource that was independently “needed” by statute, a capacity bid that could be added as necessary to bridge for any further shortfall, and then conduct a more thorough analysis for the longer-term needs. Today the Commission instead chose to rely primarily on the original need determination that opened the docket, accept the ALJ’s findings only to the extent they were consistent with their own findings, and direct Xcel to negotiate with everyone proposing to build something and report back. 

Despite the above, the decision is a significant step forward for solar. This was the first time a solar proposal had competed directly with natural gas in a resource acquisition process and, despite significant pressure from the Department of Commerce to shuffle the solar bid off into a separate, solar-only proceeding, the Commission confirmed today that the solar bid was welcome at the big kids table.

Look for a forthcoming Order that includes something like this:

In order to meet reliability and adequacy requirements and to comply with MN energy policy statutes, direct Xcel to separately negotiate power purchase agreements with Geronimo Energy, Calpine, Invenergy and develop pricing terms for Black Dog 6 to address the overall Xcel system needs identified in this record and the March 5, 2013 Integrated Resource Plan Order and determine which resources best meet system needs and are in ratepayers’ best interests.

Find that negotiated terms that shift risk or unknown costs to ratepayers are not likely to be reasonable. Find that bidders shall be held to the prices and terms used to evaluate each bid for purposes of cost recovery from Xcel ratepayers. Ratepayers will not be at risk for costs that are higher than bid or for benefits assumed in bids that do not materialize. If actual costs are lower than bid, the bidders should be allowed to keep those savings.

Require that power purchase agreement provide terms that sufficiently protect ratepayers from risks associated with the non-deliverability of accredited capacity or energy from the projects as proposed.

For more information, please contact Drew Moratzka or Sara Bergan.

Value of Solar Achieves a New Dawn in Minnesota

Yesterday afternoon, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the methodology for calculating value of solar (VOS) tariffs in Minnesota as developed by the Department of Commerce. In doing so, Minnesota became the first in the nation to adopt a VOS tariff methodology.

The Commission was required by statute to take action on the VOS calculation methodology by the end of the month. It had three options: to approve it as proposed, reject it, or approve it with modifications and with the consent of the Department. For background on the Department's January 31st recommendation, see our blog posts here and here. The Department subsequently included several modifications affecting the fuel price escalation factor, the avoided distribution capacity cost, and the environmental cost categories.

In its ruling, the Commission approved the Department’s methodology, as amended, by a 3-2 vote.

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Initial Rate for Minnesota Community Solar Gardens Set (Almost)

After a full day of hearing arguments on Xcel’s proposed Community Solar Garden (CSG) program (see more on that here), the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission deliberated in public on the issue yesterday and made some important modifications to Xcel’s proposal. The program would allow Xcel customers to invest in off-site solar facilities and receive bill credit for their portion of generation. Ultimately that credit would be at the Value of Solar rate, but as parties await a decision on the Value of Solar (VOS) methodology (more on the VOS here), the Commission settled on an interim rate for the program (though its final vote on the matter is still forthcoming). It is largely based on average retail rates but importantly includes a placeholder value of any transferred Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs). A CSG developer could transfer the S-RECs to Xcel at a compensation rate of $.02/kWh for facilities with a capacity greater than 250 kW and at $.03/kWh for those with a capacity of 250 kW or less. The S-REC value is not intended to reflect a market rate and is intended and is intended to be strictly temporary, expiring upon the approval of Xcel’s VOS tariff.  Furthermore the rate and S-REC value are to be reviewed annually and adjusted if necessary.

The illustrative range of rates (assuming the SREC is transferred) is as follows:

Residential: $.14033 or $.15033

Small General: $.13738 or $.143738

General Service: $.11456 or $.12456

 

In addition, Xcel’s proposed 2.5 MW quarterly cap on the program was removed given the statute precludes a cap. While a final decision has not yet been issued by the Commission, newsmedia have already begun to report on it (see Star Tribune article here).

 

For more information contact: Sara Bergan, Sarah Johnson Phillips or Drew Moratzka.

Viewpoints Diverge on the Value of Solar in Minnesota

Final comments were filed yesterday on the proposed methodology for calculating a value of solar (VOS) rate for utilities in Minnesota (more on the proposed methodology is here). With the Commission required to make a decision within 60 days of January 31, 2014, parties remain in fairly wide disagreement about what is required by statute, particularly what values are truly “known and measurable” and whether the value calculation or proposition applies to the particular utility or more broadly to society. Depending on the interpretation of these factors among others, the estimated  VOS rate could vary from half of that suggested by the Department’s original $0.135/kWh example to something considerably higher. The rate would eventually apply to Xcel’s Community Solar Garden (CSG) Program and potentially as an alternative to net-metering arrangements for projects under 1MW. In a separate proceeding yesterday, the Commission set interim rates for the CSG program that could be even higher with a placeholder SREC value included (more on that in a separate blog).

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What is the Value of Solar? Minnesota Agency Starts to Answer. . .

by Sara Bergan and Sarah Johnson Phillips

In May 2013, the Minnesota Legislature passed legislation that, among other things, set a solar standard, directed Xcel Energy to develop a community solar garden program, and provided for the development of an alternative tariff mechanism to net metering that would also serve as the rate for community solar garden programs. Under this new scenario and instead of traditional net-metering arrangements, customers would potentially buy all of their electricity from their local distribution utility and then sell all of their PV generation under that utility's Value of Solar (VOS) tariff which would be designed to capture the societal value of PV-generated electricity. 

The legislation directed the Department of Commerce to work with stakeholders to develop a VOS methodology and to deliver its recommendations to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (Commission) on Friday, January 31, 2014.  The Department’s filing today includes its recommendation, with a more in-depth document addressing the methodology.  The  Department’s recommendations do not set a rate, but rather propose the methodology for calculating a utility-specific rate for distributed PV solar (1 MW and smaller). If the Department’s sample calculation is any indicator of what’s to come, however, the value went from $0.126/kWh in its initial draft to $0.135/kWh in the documents filed this morning.

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