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Friday, June 10, 2022

Threats to legal certainty in government contracting by electricity distribution companies

by Akshay Jaitly and Ajay Shah.

A battle in Andhra Pradesh, 2018-2022

In September 2018, electricity distribution companies in Andhra Pradesh (Discoms) filed a petition before the Andhra Pradesh Electricity Regulatory Commission (APERC) to reduce the feed-in tariff for wind power projects (that had been determined under Section 62 of the Electricity Act, where the regulator sets the price). Another petition was filed requesting APERC to revise the tariff payable by Discoms under solar power PPAs (this time discovered under Section 63 of the Electricity Act, where there is a competitive bidding process). The argument made by Discoms was that the tariff discovered in other states pursuant to competitive bidding was lower than the tariffs statutorily determined in Andhra Pradesh. There are also newspaper reports about the state load dispatch centre (SLDC) curtailing output by renewables generators, ostensibly in the interests of grid safety.

These attempts at reneging on contracts, by the state, go against basic notions of sanctity of contracting and legal certainty. When X contracts with Y, both are bound by and obliged to fulfil the terms of the contract, regardless of future fluctuations of prices and technology. The Indian Contract Act, 1872, and a line of case law under it, gives no space for either X or Y, as private persons, to renege on a contract because better prices had come about somewhere else in the economy.

It is also settled law that when the state enters into a contract, it does so in a commercial capacity and not as the sovereign. If the Indian state purports to renege on contracts in this fashion, it deepens the problems of the state as an untrusted counterparty, and fewer private persons will be willing to do business with the state in the future. This would harm the prices at which the state is able to enter into contracts.

As an example, consider a Jan 2022 story by Kailash Babar in the Economic Times, about NHAI terminating a contract with IL&FS which had been established in 2013. NHAI did not just walk away: it paid IL&FS Rs.891 crore for the privilege of terminating the contract. Concessions typically have a formula for termination compensation in three scenarios – authority default, no fault and concessionaire default. These are expressed as percentages of debt due plus some equity return and some other terms.

Attempts at reneging on PPAs elsewhere in India

This experience from Andhra Pradesh is actually not unique. Discoms and regulators in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu have subsequently attempted unilateral termination or renegotiation of renewable energy tariffs under validly executed PPAs.

Punjab took this one step further in November last year, by introducing and unanimously passing legislation to get out of its PPA obligations. A few months ago, we wrote about the Punjab Renewable Energy Security, Reform, Termination and Re-Determination of Power Tariff Bill passed in the Punjab Legislative Assembly. This law seeks to renege on PPAs that the Punjab state Discom had voluntarily entered into, on the basis that these created too heavy a financial burden on the state. This attempt by the state, to have immunity from contract performance, is under legal challenge.

A seminal skirmish took place a while ago, in Gujarat in 2013, where the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity had held with reference to the actions of a Discom in Gujarat, that a PPA could only be reopened for "giving thrust to renewable energy projects and not for curtailing the incentives". In other words, PPAs could not be reopened to reduce tariffs. In this case, Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Ltd (GUVNL) had filed a petition before the Gujarat Electricity Regulatory Commission (GERC) in 2013, asking for a revision in solar tariffs determined by the commission in its 2010 order on the grounds of reduced customs and excise duties, which would justify a downward revision of the tariffs. The GERC dismissed GUVNL’s petition and its decision was upheld by the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity (APTEL) on appeal. APTEL held that since GUVNL had not established that there is a legal right available to it to seek a redetermination of the tariff by reopening the PPA, the GERC would not be expected to revisit the generic tariff ‘to dis-incentivise the project developers and consequently discourage future investment in the sector’.

How the Andhra Pradesh story played out

Despite this, solar and wind power developers challenged this in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh. A single judge bench of the High Court dismissed the Discoms' petitions in September 2019, with a direction to APERC to decide the issues raised by the developers.

But the High Court directed the Discoms to pay an interim tariff (lower than the tariffs under the PPAs) until APERC adjudicated the matter. The legal foundations through which the court chose to go against contract law are not clear. This created tremendous commercial difficulties in the industry. In some instances, there are reports that even this lower interim tariff was not being paid by the Discoms, causing further distress to power generators.

The typical renewables project is a tight arrangement of capital and PPA, with little room for contracting wobbles. Once the predictability of cash flows was disrupted, some of the generating assets were classified as 'non-performing'. The generators tried to go to court to force lenders to not do so.

This problem then showed up at a Division Bench at the Andhra Pradesh High Court. The case played out over three years. The Division Bench held that:

  1. The tariff under concluded PPAs cannot be re-negotiated;
  2. Financial difficulty of Discoms is not a ground to permit non-performance of the PPAs or to reduce the tariff set out under the PPAs;
  3. A tariff determined through competitive bidding process under Section 63 of the Electricity Act cannot be re-determined; and
  4. Since renewable energy plants operate on a ‘must-run basis’, any arbitrary curtailment of power by the state load despatch centre without notice and not based on grid security or safety reasons is illegal.

This was a salutory reaffirmation of the foundations of commercial law: Contracts must be honoured, statutory processes cannot be unilaterally set aside, power validly contracted under a PPA can only be curtailed for technical reasons. At the same time, in a well functioning market economy, these events from 2018 to 2022 -- and the associated commercial consequences for private persons -- should have never taken place. Every investor looks at this fracas and chooses a somewhat higher risk premium for doing business in India.

Implications for the Indian legal system

It is important to analyse what shapes these attempts at state immunity from contract law. In what ways can laws be amended, or principles be evolved, so that such attempts are eliminated or at least minimised?

Perhaps the Andhra Pradesh Discoms will appeal to the Supreme Court of India in this matter; perhaps the challenge to the Punjab PPA law will find its way to the Supreme Court. It is then interesting to envision: What is the Supreme Court order that can usefully underline the foundations of the extant contract law, and thus reduce the incentives to embark on such manoeuvres?

While a Supreme Court order in this regard might act as a deterrent in the future, the problem lies in the culture of government institutions, who are conditioned to exhaust all available means of reducing costs, irrespective of the merits of their position and the chances of success, out of fear of vigilance authorities. A solution would be for the government to develop guidelines and instructions setting out the bases on which appeals should be pursued or not.

In developing such guidelines, some of the questions for the state to consider would be as follows: Suppose the probability of success of such attempts at renegotiating are 0. Is it still efficient for a state government to initiate it? As Karan Gulati and Shubho Roy emphasise in a forthcoming paper, could it be that the time value of money that is used in Indian court orders make it efficient for the state government to embark on litigation that it has no possibility of winning? We need to also analyse the Indian justice system from this point of view, and identify the reforms through which the incentive of a state government is reshaped.

Implications for electricity policy

As we have argued before, the Indian electricity sector has suffered from difficulties for a long time, but the recent years represent an escalation of stress to a different level. This comes from the combination of low price renewables, volatility in fuel costs, the impact of ESG investors abroad upon electricity purchase by large Indian firms, and the accelerating exit of commercial and industrial buyers from discoms.

It is sometimes comforting to think that discoms in India have always had problems. But the problems seen today are worse. Faced with extreme stress, there is an appetite for extreme measures. When the policy process is weak, there is a greater likelihood of poorly designed policy measures being adopted, such as attempts at reneging on contracts. When even a few discoms engage in such behaviour, this reduces the investability of the Indian electricity sector in areas that have connections with the Indian state.

We should see each of these eruptions as illustrations of the underlying stress, and reorient ourselves towards the required fundamental electricity reform.

We thank Charmi Mehta for research assistance on this article.

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