Nicole "Cola" Rowley

Last month, the Missoula City Council and Missoula Board of County Commissioners, with the support of hundreds of local residents, businesses and community organizations, adopted a goal of 100% clean electricity for the Missoula urban area by 2030. We are proud to join more than 130 local governments across the country with similar goals. And we look forward to working with NorthWestern Energy, our primary electricity provider in Missoula, as we transition to 100 percent clean electricity.

Unfortunately, a recent proposal from NorthWestern would take us in precisely the wrong direction. NorthWestern has proposed changes to customer rates that would make it much more difficult for Montanans to choose clean, renewable electricity to power their homes. The proposed changes, which must be approved by the Montana Public Service Commission, would increase all customers’ electric bills by about 7%, and would have much greater impacts on customers who install renewable energy systems.

Montana law allows homeowners to install small renewable energy systems, such as rooftop solar arrays, and hook them up to the electric grid. When their solar panels generate more electricity than they use in their homes, the excess flows out onto the grid, and customers get credits on their electric bills. This arrangement is called net metering. NorthWestern’s proposal would impose a new “demand charge” on net-metered customers. This charge could not be offset by the energy produced by the customer’s renewable energy system.

The result? It would be nearly impossible for homeowners to save money on their electric bills by investing in solar. Demand for rooftop solar, which has accelerated as the price has dropped dramatically over the past decade, would plummet. Business would dry up for the dozens of small businesses that install solar in Missoula and around the state. This would be a tremendous loss, since solar installation is one of the fastest-growing employment sectors in the nation.

NorthWestern has never imposed a demand charge on residential customers before, and customers who want to make a private investment in renewable energy should not be singled out for discriminatory treatment. NorthWestern claims the change is needed because net-metered customers aren’t paying their fair share. However, expert testimony before the PSC demonstrated that current net-metering rates are fair, and that under the proposed change net-metered customers would no longer be fairly compensated for the energy they provide to the grid.

Private investments in small renewable energy systems are a critical component of our efforts to reach 100 percent renewable electricity. Hundreds of Missoula County residents have already installed rooftop solar arrays and are reaping the benefits of clean electricity and reduced electric bills. And the growth potential is huge. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that by taking advantage of all suitable roof space, as much as 28 percent of the electricity used in Montana could be generated by rooftop solar. But if the PSC approves NorthWestern’s proposal, investment in rooftop solar will come to a standstill. Missoulians will have fewer options to generate their own clean energy. And our 100 percent clean electricity goal will be that much harder to achieve.

We urge the PSC to protect rooftop solar by rejecting NorthWestern Energy’s proposed change to net-metering rates. We encourage concerned residents to speak up at the PSC’s meeting in Missoula from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 8, at Partnership Health Center. You can also submit written comments at http://psc.mt.gov/Documents-Proceedings/Comment-On-A-Proceeding (reference Docket #D2018.2.12).

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This opinion is signed by Missoula Mayor John Engen, Missoula City Council President Bryan von Lossberg, and Missoula County Commissioners Nicole “Cola” Rowley, Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick.

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