The Montana Supreme Court will not stay a lower court's decision favoring the development of a 480-acre Billings solar farm.
The court unanimously decided Aug. 6 to back District Judge James Manley in a case brought by MTSUN against the Montana Public Service Commission and NorthWestern Energy.
Manley concluded in June that MTSUN had been wronged by a 2017 PSC decision to shorten the contract for the Billings solar project from 25 years to 15. Commissioners knew the shorter contract would likely kill MTSUN's development and did so with bias against renewable energy, Manley ruled. One commissioner, Bob Lake, had been caught on a hot mic acknowledging the contracts would harm the solar industry.
The judge also set the per megawatt price NorthWestern would pay for MTSUN's power at $38.33 including fees. The price was less than what NorthWestern customers pay for coal and hydro power currently in the utility's portfolio.
At 480-acres, MTSUN’s 80-megawatt development along Alkali Creek Road would be the largest solar farm in the state, generating enough electricity to power about 14,400 homes.
NorthWestern asked Manley to stay his ruling while the utility appealed to the state Supreme Court. Manley declined, stating that the appeal was unlikely to succeed. The utility then requested a stay from the state Supreme Court, arguing that Manley abused his discretion.
This week, Supreme Court justices sided with Manley on the stay, not only turning down NorthWestern, but also stating there was no evidence Manley abused his discretion.
NorthWestern has not yet filed an appeal on Manley's ruling.
There was another NorthWestern stay request before the state Supreme Court, and in that case the utility prevailed. The court stayed a Manley decision concerning small solar projects of three megawatts or less. Similar to MTSUN, the judge faulted the PSC for deliberately creating contract and pricing terms that made solar energy projects uneconomical. He ordered state regulators to come up with a fair pricing scheme and to restore solar energy contracts to 25 years.
NorthWestern argued it could be harmed if Manley's order on small solar projects were executed while the utility appealed to the high court. Because there was no objection to the stay by small solar project developers, Montana Supreme Court justices granted NorthWestern's stay.