Below is the text of an article we published in Law360 on September 14. (The article is also available at Law360.)
On September 7, the Internal Revenue Service issued Revenue Procedure 2017-47 to provide a safe harbor for public utilities that inadvertently or unintentionally use a practice or procedure that is inconsistent with the so-called normalization rules. Before describing the revenue procedure, we first discuss the basics of normalization.
Normalization is an accounting system provided for by Treasury regulations that is used by regulated public utilities to reconcile the tax treatment of the investment tax credits (ITC) set forth in section 46 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 or accelerated depreciation of public utility assets under section 168 of the Code with their regulatory treatment.
Although the ITC generally was repealed with respect to “public utility property” (i.e., property that earns a regulated return set by a public utility commission (PUC) (which has different names in different states)) that was placed in service after 1985, normalization remains relevant with respect to the ITC due to the long economic useful lives of much public utility property. Thus, Revenue Procedure 2017-47 addresses the ITC, not because solar projects (or other renewable projects) that earn a regulated return would currently qualify for the ITC, but because public utility property up until 1985 qualified for the ITC and some of that property is still being used and included in utility rate-making calculations as described below.
Understanding normalization requires an understanding of certain fundamentals of rate-making for regulated utilities. As a general matter, a regulated utility is entitled to earn an after-tax return on its investments in its utility system. The PUC that regulates the utility then sets the rates paid by customers for the utility service (e.g., electricity) to allow the utility to earn that after-tax return on its investments. In setting those rates, the PUC must determine economic depreciation for the utility’s assets and “tax expense.”
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