In its recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) on wholesale competition and open-access transmission,1 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has outlined a plan to revolutionize the electricity industry. The linchpin of its new plan is open access to transmission facilities (em or, in more traditional terms, "mandatory wheeling" of electricity.
The FERC proposes that all utilities file tariffs requiring them generally to wheel power from any electric generator on nondiscriminatory terms. By providing all comers with equal access to the grid, the Commission hopes to foster development of cheaper power sources and encourage transactions between these new power producers and wholesale and retail purchasers.
But there is a catch. The FERC may lack authority to compel wheeling on such a grand scale. In fact, the Commission admits in the NOPR that it cannot satisfy the stringent conditions prerequisite under current law to compel wheeling. Under these circumstances, the courts may well find that the FERC's new plan (em while admirable in purpose (em may exceed its legal authority.
THE RATIONALE: HARD PRESSED
As the Commission observes, many nontraditional generators can now build and operate new generating capacity at prices "substantially lower" than utilities' embedded costs.2 That puts new capacity in danger of being under-utilized. As the FERC puts it, "It is in the [utilities'] self-interest to maintain and use market power to retain (or expand) market share for their existing generation facilities, at least until they can get their generation costs in line with current market prices."3