Understanding Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA)

Defining PURPA

Passed in 1978 as one part of the National Energy Act, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies act (PURPA), provided a major benefit to the production and integration of renewable energy.

The National Energy Act was conceived in reaction to the energy crisis of 1973. It contained a plethora of legislation that would aim to drastically cut the demand for imported oil. One such act, now today as PURPA, would give manufacturers of renewable energy a toe-hold in the door to large scale energy manufacturing and deployment, which is always appreciated. PURPA was meant to promote better energy conservation, domestic power production, and renewable energy construction and integration.

Prior to PURPA, electric utilities were structured in what is known as vertical monopolies, which basically means that they control all aspects of energy supply: the generation, distribution and control were all controlled by one company, which was originally thought to be more effective method of energy maintenance. Well, that is until PURPA was introduced and broke that model and would make it much easier for other energy companies to integrate into the grid.

PURPA also eliminated “rate structure” promotions offered by utilities. Rate structure decreased the cost of electricity by kWh with increasing usage, with smaller increments included, as well.

PURPA’s Role in Renewable Energy

PURPA enabled non-utility generators (NUG’s) to generate and attach energy to the energy grid by breaking the monopolies that held control of it. Not only that, but PURPA also forced utility companies to purchase energy from other energy producers, like producers of renewable energy, if that cost was less than their avoided cost, or the cost of producing the extra energy on their own and delivering it to the consumer. As a result, more and more cogeneration plants were built and implemented into the system. These plants were required by law to harness thermal energy in the form of steam, which would otherwise be wasted if energy alone was produced.

Controversy with PURPA

PURPA was not as big of an issue back in the 1970’s. However, more and more utility providers are having issues with PURPA. Specifically, having to accept renewable energy providers, specifically providers of solar energy, due to the fact that solar energy has become gradually more affordable and viable in energy production over the last few years.

One such controversy has erupted in Montana where the state’s largest investor-owned utility company, known as NorthWestern Energy, filed a claim with the state’s public service commission stating that the current rates of qualified providers (QF’s), which were stalled at $66 per mega-watt hour, was out of date as of 2013. The commission granted the proposal and altered the terms of which QF’s that provided between 100 kilowatts and 3 megawatts received the current avoided cost rate. None of the projects met the criteria.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) declared that the Montana State Commission had ruled in a way that was inconsistent with PURPA. However, as of this writing, they have not made any movements to rectify the commissions movement, which begs the question as to how seriously PURPA is being enforced.

In another instance, a North Carolina based utility company, Duke Energy, is currently backing a bill that would bring all renewable energy construction to a slow crawl. Introduced by Rep. Dean Arp (R-Union), House bill 909 is encouraging the once halted negotiations between Duke Energy, renewable energy advocates, and other PURPA stakeholders.

The bill would remove all North Carolina renewable energy projects from the umbrella of PURPA, and would throw those projects into a bidding process lead by Duke Energy. The bidding would have a ceiling of a predicted 400 megawatts.

“This bill would crush renewables in every sense, except perhaps in agriculture,” said Chris Carmody, the executive director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Business Alliance. You can read more on the North Carolina controversy here!

But Montana and North Carolina are not the only states seeing conflict with PURPA. Utah and Oregon utilities are starting to call for new contract lengths, rates, and other changes. Solar companies have since stated that the proposed changes would make it impossible to finance solar projects. It is not farsighted to say that further controversy could emerge in the near future.

New Legislation Affecting PURPA

PURPA is seeing a steady decline in significance as most of the contracts signed in the 1980’s are coming to an end. Furthermore, PURPA was amended in 2005 under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The amendments to PURPA begin on Section E, subsection 1251 through 1254 of the Energy Policy act. Here is a short list of what amendments were made:

  • Each electric utility service shall make available upon request net metering services to any electric consumer the utility serves
  • Each electric utility shall develop a plan to minimize dependence on 1 fuel source and to ensure that the electric energy it sells to consumers is generated using a diverse range of fuels and technologies, including renewable technologies.
  • Each electric utility shall develop and implement a 10-year plan to increase the efficiency of its fossil fuel generation.

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