Customers of Montana’s largest electric utility pay less for energy delivered from Montana wind farms than they do for coal burned at the Colstrip coal plant. This fact might run counter to some people’s preconceived notions of renewable energy, but if one examines the mix of energy sources that Northwestern Energy customers are paying for, this is true.
As a legislator concerned about energy issues, I care about the facts. And so should regulators on Montana’s Public Service Commission, as it is their job to ensure reasonable rates for consumers. So it was with great concern that I read the (May 23) opinion from Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman, as it contained a number of inaccurate statements, especially in regard to renewable energy.
First Koopman claimed that the existing Renewable Energy Standard fails to recognize hydropower as renewable. That statement is untrue. Montana’s RES has always recognized small hydropower projects as renewable (Montana Code Annotated 69-3-2003). In addition, Koopman should have been aware of the inclusion of the additional energy generated from upgrades to existing hydropower dams as renewable, a change that passed the Legislature this year and was supported unanimously at the PSC at Koopman’s own request.
Koopman further stated that the 15 percent renewable requirement is blind to the notion of cost. This too is false. As stated previously and verified with the PSC’s own documents, wind energy is among the cheapest energy sources available to NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest public utility. But if renewable energy can be shown to be more costly than available fossil fuel generation, the law permits utilities an out from the requirement to procure it.
Koopman was taking issue with Gov. Steve Bullock’s veto of Senate Bill 31 in making these misstatements, a bill that would have added hydropower of any size to Montana’s RES. The reasons for opposing this bill, which I did in the Legislature, are simple and do not imply a lack of appreciation for hydropower.
First, as initially presented the bill sought to count all existing hydropower as renewable, effectively gutting the RES. The bill was successfully amended to apply only to new hydropower, but the initial intent was clear.
Second, as far as the Legislature was informed, there are no large hydropower projects under development in Montana. Adding large hydropower projects to Montana’s RES would most likely be utilized, if at all, to incentivize hydropower projects in Canada. Incentivizing Canadian hydropower is of questionable value to Montanans.
Third, Montana is very close to meeting our 15 percent renewable energy standard, leaving few incentives for new hydropower projects. If we would like to add more eligible resources to Montana’s RES, we should consider raising our standard to actually incentivize those resources.
Finally, Bullock expressed his desire to complete a comprehensive study of Montana’s RES before making major changes to the law. The most recent legislature passed just such a study resolution and the interim energy committee, of which I am a member, will be examining the facts of Montana’s RES over the next 18 months.
It is noteworthy that the PSC has taken a number of questionable actions in the first five months of Koopman’s service and his colleagues’ assumption of leadership. The Great Falls Tribune editorial board criticized the PSC for its attempts to keep the pay of public utility executives secret. The Helena Independent Record editorial board said the PSC was wrong when they approved an interim rate increase on consumers of natural gas. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle editorial board said the PSC embarrassed the state when it sent an “overreaching letter” to the Environmental Protection Agency on emission rules at coal plants.
I have my own experience with public documents detailing the cost of electricity from various energy resources being removed from the PSC’s website in the middle of the legislature when the PSC published data contradicted testimony from a PSC commissioner.
I am committed to ensuring that we develop energy resources for Montanans in economically and environmentally sound ways. This entails analyzing facts. Renewable resources, including hydro and wind, are part of our energy mix. I look forward to participating in a bipartisan review of the RES as a member of the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee, and learning more about the PSC’s actions.
Rep. Mary McNally, D-Billings, represents House District 49 in the Montana Legislature.