Ravalli community solar
Brian Fadie

Ever since the Montana Public Service Commission pulled the rug out from under commercial solar projects in late June, the opinion pages have been on fire with outrage – people wondering how on earth this could have happened. So it was disappointing to see that when NorthWestern Energy responded to the criticism (see the company’s opinion published on July 12), it sought to muddy the water rather than clarify the situation.

NorthWestern has indeed signed contracts for wind and solar projects recently, but it only did this because federal law required it to do so. The Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act is designed to increase the nation’s energy supply and diversity by requiring utilities to purchase cost-competitive electricity from independent power producers. The act is intended to increase competition in energy markets, making monopoly utilities such as NorthWestern compete with other energy companies. This competition and diversification is good for you and me as consumers.

Thanks to advances in technology, electricity generated from wind and solar is cost-competitive in energy markets today. As a result, NorthWestern finds itself competing with renewable energy companies. This is where its actions become more important than its words.

Every wind and solar contract signed by NorthWestern Energy since 2013 only happened because the law forced the company to do so. NorthWestern fought these kinds of projects hard. It has attacked their contract lengths in the state legislature. It told the Montana Public Service Commission that solar has no value despite all other states in the region — red and blue alike — finding the opposite is true. For NorthWestern to now claim credit for these renewable energy projects that it strongly opposed seems confusing and disingenuous.

Even more confusing is NorthWestern’s claim that it is “look(ing) forward to making additional investments in this arena in the coming years.” Sounds promising, but it is not reflected in the company’s long-term planning document, which calls for absolutely no new wind or solar projects. None. Instead, the plan calls for 13 new expensive and risky gas-fired plants ($1.3 billion worth to be precise). These are costs and risks that consumers — you and I — would have to bear while NorthWestern’s corporate shareholders reaped all the profits. It is hard to believe these are the actions of a company that is looking forward to investing in renewable energy.

Reasonable people are willing to give credit where credit is due. But until NorthWestern’s actions match its words, then the company would not seem deserving of the pro-renewable energy reputation it seeks.

Brian Fadie is the Montana Environmental Information Center's Clean Energy Program director. 

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