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Peirce Law helps solar energy company win right to sue electric utility

The attorneys of Robert Peirce & Associates recently won an important court ruling on behalf of their client Sunrise Energy that may help shift Pennsylvania's energy supply to more sustainable sources.

In Sunrise Energy, LLC v. First Energy Corp. and West Penn Power Company, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court determined that courts have the authority to decide cases involving the interpretation of the Pennsylvania Alternative Energy Act, as opposed to the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission (PUC). This decision is important because it keeps the judicial branch in charge of interpreting the law, rather than allowing the PUC, an executive agency, to make a subjective decision based on how it wants to regulate the energy supply.

The Alternative Energy Act is a key part of Pennsylvania's efforts to shift part of our energy supply to more sustainable and environmentally-friendly sources. It requires utility companies to source a portion of their electricity from solar, wind, biofuel and other renewable sources. The law also gives people and companies who use solar power (and other renewables) the opportunity to become “costumer generators,” which means that anyone who generates their own electricity using solar panels, wind turbines or other alternative energy sources can sell the excess energy to the utility companies.

Unfortunately, the big utility companies often try to avoid paying a fair rate for the alternative sources of electricity, which is what happened in Sunrise v. West Penn.

Sunrise Energy, a solar power generator (and a customer of West Penn) in Washington County, PA, had signed a contract agreeing to become a customer generator and sell its excess energy to West Penn Power. West Penn also required Sunrise to pay nearly $70,000 to contribute to West Penn's infrastructure upgrades. Even though Sunrise paid the full amount for the upgrades, West Penn arbitrarily decided to pay Sunrise a lower rate because West Penn claimed Sunrise wasn't really a “customer generator.”

Sunrise sued West Penn in the Washington County Court of Common Pleas for breaching its contract, forcing it to pay for upgrades and using Sunrise's electricity without paying for it. West Penn Power objected, stating that the PUC, not a court, should decide the case instead.

In a 5-2 decision by an en banc panel of judges, the Commonwealth Court ruled that state courts have jurisdiction over interpretation and disputes involving the Alternative Energy Act, not the PUC. It also ruled that the PUC could not have been neutral in deciding the case because it had already gone on record proposing an amendment to change the definition of “customer generator” to be more restrictive.

Robert Peirce & Associates Attorneys Robert F. Daley, Michael Gianantonio, and D. Aaron Rihn represented Sunrise Energy in the case.

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