As I write this at the end of May, the Missoula Valley is filled with smoke from two dozen wildfires in Northern Alberta. Over 200 tornadoes have swept over the Midwest in the last two weeks, and severe flooding there has made spring planting on millions of acres of farmlands impossible.
These extremes follow the four hottest years on Earth (2015-2018) according to the 139-year climate record of the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Our climate is changing, and the results are scary.
That’s why Montanans should be up in arms about NorthWestern Energy’s plans to discourage solar energy production and to promote fossil fuels. NorthWestern is proposing new rate increases, and if approved, these increases will include a new demand charge on customers who send clean energy to the grid with their rooftop solar panels — a charge that will make it impossible for these customers to recoup their investments. The charge will discourage future customers from investing in solar and harm Montana’s rooftop solar industry.
NorthWestern is also asking for a $40 million increase in the rate it charges for using its transmission lines. If the rate increase is approved, it may endanger several companies’ plans to build renewable energy projects in Montana.
Finally, NorthWestern’s 2019 Power Procurement Plan (which describes where the company will get its future energy), dismisses renewables as unreliable and highlights natural gas.
NorthWestern’s plans ignore the recommendations of many climate experts. In December 2015, the world’s governments agreed to limit global average temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius and to try to limit it to 1.5 degrees. According to Oil Change International, a research, communications and advocacy organization, if we use just the oil, gas and coal in the world’s fields and mines operating now, it would take us beyond 2 degrees of warming. Using the reserves in the operating oil and gas fields alone, without coal, would take us beyond 1.5 degrees. If Oil Change International is right (they worked with over 20 international organizations and universities), the time when we can use natural gas to transition from coal to renewables has run out. We must stop digging up new fossil fuels, and develop renewables and storage batteries to fill our energy needs.
Many of the increases that NorthWestern proposes will be decided by the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC). However, it’s unclear if the PSC takes the threat of climate change seriously. In the last two years, the PSC has reduced the rate paid to small renewable energy projects for their power by half. It also shortened the contract lengths for all power purchase agreements, making financing these projects difficult.
On June 22, 2017, PSC Commissioner Bob Lake was recorded on a live microphone bragging that if the low rates did not kill renewable energy projects, then the short contracts would. During the 2019 legislative session, Senate Bill 331 would have allowed NorthWestern to expand its ownership of the coal-fired power plant at Colstrip and hold NorthWestern’s Montana customers responsible for all the related costs — without PSC oversight. At the bill’s hearing in the Senate Energy Committee on March 19, Lake supported the bill.
Our future and the future of the planet are too important to let NorthWestern Energy continue with business as usual. Let them know that you disagree with their plans to use more fossil fuels to provide Montana’s energy. Let the PSC and the Office of Consumer Council know you support clean energy.