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Jan and Harold Hoem

 Jan and Harold Hoem

Every so often questions arise that lead to wondering what our governance is up to.

On June 22, the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) set harsh terms for small solar projects in Montana. By federal law, the PSC is required to promote renewable energy. But at their meeting, the PSC cut contract lengths from 25 years to five, with an optional five additional years.

June 23, Tom Lutey reported in the Missoulian that solar advocates say those shorter contracts are too short to secure financing. Another PSC-negotiated hurdle for small solar energy projects with power for up to 540 homes (known as Qualifying Facilities, QFs) was a 40 percent cut in the rates that utilities like North Western Energy would pay for adding solar energy to their grid.

Hot mic records troubling conversation about solar regulations” read the title of a follow-up Lutey article appearing in the Missoulian. It covers PSC Commissioner Bob Lake and PSC rate analyst Neil Templeton, accidentally recorded during a break.

Lake acknowledged that cuts to rates and contracts offered to QFs are likely deep enough to kill future development. Templeton added that the rates are too low and the contract lengths, too short: “Just dropping the rate that much probably took care of the whole thing.”

“Well,” replied Lake, “the 10-year might do it if the price doesn’t. And at this low price, I can’t imagine anyone getting into it. So it becomes a totally moot point because dropping the rate... probably took care of the whole thing.” Oops.

The PSC, in a release June 23, quotes Commissioner Roger Koopman saying, “It’s not the role of the commission ... to pick favorites in the energy field. It is our job to maintain a level playing field that is fair to both the ratepayer and energy entrepreneurs.” Koopman elsewhere said he followed the recommendations of the Montana Consumer Counsel (MCC), and that the MCC is “unafraid of sometimes testing the limits of troublesome federal mandates.”

The PSC had previously obliged NorthWestern Energy (NWE) by suspending the small solar project incentive program in 2016. After objections from solar advocates, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled that PSC was in the wrong.

Under the new rules, QFs are unlikely to get financing with shortened contract length and uncertainty of prices. Is the PSC really being fair to fledgling solar entrepreneurs? Is this really a level playing field?

The Billing Gazette’s July 5 opinion piece says it best: “The Montana Public Service Commission has cast a dark shadow over Montana’s solar energy business. For the past year, PSC decisions have been so unfavorable to solar power that these rulings may effectively curtail growth in Montana while solar development soars nationwide. Simply shutting out solar energy doesn’t protect Montana consumers. Diverse sources can add stability and a measure of competition to the energy supply. Coal, solar, wind and hydropower all contribute taxes and jobs to local economies, but not all are feasible everywhere in Montana.”

Nationally, handicapping solar start-ups is actively supported by the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, the organization they back with bucks.

Consumers want renewable power sources. NWE acknowledges this. What better way to cool homes during ever hotter summers than by using the sun’s own power that provides its own fuel — no expensive and risky pipelines or mines! And the cost to other ratepayers is minimal, considering the consequences of a hotter climate.

Meanwhile, who will watch the watchers? It looks like, in Montana, an alert press and public are the most reliable defenders. Kudos to the Gazette and others for their watchful eyes.

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Harold and Jan Hoem of Missoula are members of Montana Elders for a Livable Tomorrow. 

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