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Amid Virus Strain, 2020 Rate Case Count Not Replicating Recent Years' Tallies

The nation's investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities have been filing rate cases in recent weeks at their slowest pace in nearly a decade and COVID-19 is the likely culprit. As such, the latter part of 2020 may see a relative dearth of case decisions.

Regulatory Research Associates, a group within S&P Global Market Intelligence, is aware of eight rate proceedings that were initiated in the U.S. in the six weeks ended April 24. This figure is meaningfully lower than the number of case filings that were submitted during the same period every year since 2011, as shown below. There were 29 rate change requests filed during the comparable period in 2019. This year marks the first time since 2011 that fewer than 10 rate proceedings were initiated during this time frame.

During the six weeks ended April 24, rate proceedings were initiated by South Jersey Industries Inc. subsidiary South Jersey Gas Co.CenterPoint Energy Inc. subsidiary CenterPoint Energy Resources Corp. in Arkansas and Oklahoma, Avista Corp. in Oregon, American Electric Power Co. Inc. subsidiary Appalachian Power Co. in Virginia, Ameren Corp. subsidiary Ameren Illinois Co.Exelon Corp. subsidiary Commonwealth Edison Co. and NiSource Inc. subsidiary Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania Inc.

South Jersey Gas filed its case March 13; CenterPoint Energy's Oklahoma and Arkansas requests were filed March 13 and April 6, respectively; Avista submitted its proposal March 16; Appalachian Power filed its request March 31; Ameren Illinois' request was submitted April 14; ComEd's case was filed April 16; and Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania tendered its filing April 24.

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The data supports the notion that the transition to remote operations for many utilities and a focus on more pressing matters are contributing to the decline in filing activity.

RRA previously said the current state of affairs has the potential to impede the filing of some of these applications. Although uncertainty remains, several prominent utilities appear to still be readying case filings over the next few weeks, as discussed below.

There are about 80 pending rate proceedings being followed by RRA, the majority of which were initiated in 2019 and in the weeks leading up to the onset of the pandemic.

In addition, RRA has pointed out that the likelihood of new large electric and gas utility mergers being announced in the near future has diminished significantly due to COVID-19. In the water sector, the acceleration of small- to mid-sized municipal utility acquisitions is likely to continue. Also, RRA posits that although expectations remain high that considerable levels of capital expenditures will continue to support utility profit expansion in coming years, the pandemic will likely give management teams pause as to the timing and scale of capital expenditure programs given ongoing economic uncertainty and an anticipated recession.

The most active time for rate case filings tends to be in the late spring or early summer, with the least activity seen in the fall. By contrast, the fourth quarter is generally the busiest time of year for rate case decisions, particularly in December. According to RRA, nearly two dozen other rate proceedings could be submitted by the end of the year.

In many jurisdictions, utilities are required to tender notices of intent prior to their formal rate case applications. However, in other jurisdictions, no such notice is required and often filing plans are not publicly disclosed. In these circumstances, industry stakeholders typically seek details included in utility investor presentations for planned case filing time frames.

In March, COVID-19 led many businesses to adopt unprecedented changes for their operations, and RRA provided details regarding the initial measures taken by some commissions and utilities in response to the situation. RRA subsequently gave an assessment of certain pending rate proceedings that had been delayed to that point and later released additional details, reflecting data available at the time.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

Possible upcoming case filings

Kentucky  Atmos Energy Corp. said in February that the company intends to file a gas distribution base rate case as soon as April. The company's most recent Kentucky-jurisdictional base rate proceeding, Case No. 2018-00281, concluded in May 2019, when the Kentucky Public Service Commission ordered Atmos to implement a slight rate reduction based on a 9.65% ROE.

Missouri — Summit Natural Gas of Missouri, Inc. notified the Missouri Public Service Commission on Jan. 30 that it planned to file a gas distribution base rate request in Case No. GR-2020-0213. However, as of this writing, no such filing has been submitted. Utilities in Missouri seeking to increase rates must file tariffs 60 days prior to the proposed effective date. The most recent base rate proceeding for Summit Natural Gas, a subsidiary of Summit Utilities Inc., was completed in 2014, when the PSC established a 10.8% ROE.

Nebraska — Black Hills Gas Distribution LLC has indicated that a gas distribution rate case could be filed in April. The company, which is a subsidiary of Black Hills Corp., last completed a base rate proceeding in 2012, at which time a 9.6% ROE was established.

South Carolina — The Public Service Comm. of South Carolina recently approved a request by Dominion Energy Inc. subsidiary Dominion Energy South Carolina Inc., or DESC, to delay a required May 1 case filing deadline until at least Aug. 15. The case would have been required in accordance with the terms of the PSC's 2018 approval of Dominion's acquisition of SCANA Corp. The test year to be used in the case was the 12 months ended Dec. 31, 2019, updated for known and measurable changes through Sept. 30, 2020. New rates were contemplated to be implemented in January 2021. DESC said it would utilize this test year in the eventual case filing if the commission approves use of an updated test period ended Nov. 30, 2020. DESC's last base rate case, Docket No. 2012-218-E, was decided in 2012, when a 10.25% ROE was established.

Utah — PacifiCorp anticipates filing an electric rate case in early May. The company filed a notice of intent on Jan. 17, and the Public Service Commission of Utah issued an order on March 6, approving PacifiCorp's proposal to utilize a calendar-2021 test year and an average rate base methodology in the proceeding. The company's last rate proceeding in Utah, Docket No. 13-035-184, was decided in 2014, when the commission adopted a settlement that allowed PacifiCorp to implement a rate hike based on a 9.8% ROE.

Virginia — Virginia Electric and Power Co., or VEPCO, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, had intended to file on April 1 for an update under Rider U, which pertains to its initiative to underground at-risk distribution lines. However, on April 1, the Virginia State Corporation Commission approved VEPCO's motion to delay the filing until June 1. In so doing, the commission extended the effectiveness of the existing rider revenue requirement through March 31, 2021. The most recent update to Rider U became effective in November 2019, when VEPCO implemented an $18 million revenue requirement decrease, resulting in an annual Rider U revenue requirement of $51.5 million. VEPCO is expected to file annual updates to several other key riders in May, namely Rider B, Rider GV, Rider R, Rider S and Rider W.

Wisconsin  Alliant Energy Corp. subsidiary Wisconsin Power and Light Co. is planning to request electric and gas base rate changes in the near future. Wisconsin Power and Light's most recent base rate proceedings were resolved in 2018, when the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin issued an order approving a settlement freezing electric and gas base rates for 2019 and 2020. Any rate adjustment approved in the upcoming rate cases for the company would ultimately take effect in 2021.

Regulatory Research Associates is a group within S&P Global Market Intelligence.

For a full listing of past and pending rate cases, rate case statistics and upcoming events, visit the S&P Global Market Intelligence Energy Research Home Page.

For a complete, searchable listing of RRA's in-depth research and analysis, please go to the S&P Global Market Intelligence Energy Research Library.

This article was published by S&P Global Market Intelligence and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.

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