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Guest column

Clean energy transition will save consumers money

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Russell Doty

Russ Doty

Initiative 180 is a proposed ballot initiative requiring 80 percent renewable electricity by 2050. Contrary to John Alke’s March 7 column, I-180 allows NorthWestern Energy’s existing hydroelectric facilities (i.e., legacy hydro) to be counted in meeting I-180 requirements, but only when that makes sense. I’ve explained that to him in writing.

Check out I-180, section 3(4) (https://www.mtcares.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/I-180-final-petition-01-20-2016.pdf). You’ll find that Alke and NorthWestern are misinforming voters by falsely claiming “NorthWestern’s recently acquired hydro facilities could not be counted in meeting the 50 percent renewable mandate for 2030.”

I-180 requires NorthWestern to produce more electricity from the sun, wind and hydroelectric generating improvements installed after 2005. NorthWestern now supplies 15 percent. By 2024 it would be 37 percent. That’s when the total of additional renewable energy combined with the energy generated by NorthWestern’s legacy hydro equals 80 percent. So Section 3(4) allows it to credit the legacy hydro in meeting the 80 percent standard.

Thus, when NorthWestern adds an additional 23 percent renewable energy to its generation mix – something that will happen by 2025 – it can begin counting its pre-2005 hydro for purposes of meeting the I-180 mandate. Last time I checked, 2025 will occur before 2030. So, NorthWestern’s statement is false.

I-180 is carefully crafted. It requires as much new renewable energy as possible before allowing the dam acquisitions to be counted in meeting the I-180 mandates. It’s necessary to reduce CO2 to avoid loss of 25,000 agricultural jobs the Farmers Union recently predicted if we do nothing to reduce greenhouse gases. Then, I-180 simultaneously prevents hurting consumers who must pay for the dam acquisitions.

No worries about the cost of renewable energy I-180 requires. In our Midwest, wind power contracts are being signed for 2.5 cents/kWh. In 2015 contracts for power from solar collectors were signed for 3.87 cents/kWh in Nevada by NV Energy (a Warren Buffet-owned company). At 5.8 cents or 6.455 cents/kWh for power from Colstrip, coal-generated power cannot compete.

Thus, transitioning to clean electricity will save consumers money and not cost consumers $1 billion, as Alke claims.

NorthWestern doesn’t have to acquire wind farms. It can contract with wind developers like it did at Judith Gap. In addition, I-180 allows NorthWestern to count the rooftop solar or wind turbines of its own customers if it incentivizes them by purchasing their renewable energy credits as Xcel Energy does in Colorado. Over 4 Gigawatts of rooftop solar were installed in California in 2014. By comparison, that’s way more than the 2.3 GW of coal fired capacity at Colstrip.

Renewable energy is one reason why Utility Dive’s survey of 515 U.S. electric utility executives found a whopping 70% in favor of America’s (Environmental Protection Agency) Clean Power Plan and 29 percent wanting to see the reduction targets become more aggressive.

I-180 caps the cost of transitioning to renewable energy to not more than 2 percent increase in electricity prices. It does not, as Alke argues, cause utilities to pay for any excess cost of renewables above a 2 percent increase. If putting in renewables will raise rates more than 2 percent, utilities do not need to put in the renewables. This cap was adopted from Colorado law where the cap is not being reached. Thus, it’s not preventing renewable energy installation by all utilities required to meet Colorado’s court-approved 20 percent and 30 percent renewable energy standards, which are higher than Montana’s 15 percent requirement.

Also, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado say the U.S. could reduce carbon pollution from electricity generation by 80 percent at less than 2 percent over 2012 costs to consumers if the U.S. switched from a regional to a national electrical system by 2030 (http://www.psmag.com/nature-and-technology/why-clean-energy-needs-national-action).

So, Montana voters, please email gather@mtcares.org with your contact information asking for a signature gatherer to be sent so you can sign to put I-180 on November’s ballot.

Russ Doty, a Montana native licensed to practice law here, wrote "Poles Apart," a book on utility rate regulation published by the University of Montana Press. He drafted Initiative 180. Three years ago he moved to Greeley, Colorado.

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