Solar advocates suit claims Public Service Commission undercuts renewable energy projects

Montana’s Public Service Commission seems rather disorganized these days. Instead of striving to better serve the public, its members appear to be distracted by ideology.

Notwithstanding a couple of recent decisions favorable to ratepayers and renewable energy projects, the commission has given cause for concern about their ability to effectively regulate Montana utilities.

For instance, canceling or rescheduling public meetings at the last minute is a big problem, especially for Montanans who make the long drive from other parts of the state to attend public hearing in person in Helena. And earlier this month, the PSC released incomplete and inaccurate information about a major rate decision, an oversight that was only corrected after one commissioner raised an outcry.

Meanwhile, certain commissioners have demonstrated a preference for bad research and questionable sources, and a tendency toward fringe philosophies.

The PSC deals in important details. Its five members are regularly presented with a dizzying degree of complex information regarding market trends, cost projections and rate proposals concerning the energy, telecommunications, transportation, and water and sewer industries. The primary goal of these elected officials is to regulate monopolies with captive customers in such a way as to maintain affordable, reliable, long-term access to utility services.

The Montana PSC is composed of five members, each representing one of five districts in the state. Bob Lake is the current PSC vice chairman and representative for District 4, which covers Granite, Lincoln, Mineral, Missoula, Powell, Ravalli and Sanders counties. Lake is probably best remembered for “hot mic” comment in the summer of 2017. During a session break, Lake was recorded talking to staff about cuts made earlier that day to small renewable energy projects, appearing to acknowledge that the rate reductions would discourage future small-scale solar projects, even though the commission is obligated by federal law to promote renewable energy.

More recently, District 3 Commissioner Roger Koopman stirred concern with opinion pieces dismissing “the so-called ‘climate crisis’” and questioning the “scientific validity” of climate change research. His column published in the Missoulian earlier this month included a list of websites he considers “informative” in learning about the “other side” of climate change. These sources, such as Friends of Science, are advocacy groups that reject the expert research accepted by the majority of climate scientists and are primarily funded by the fossil fuel industry.

Koopman certainly didn’t do Montanans any favors by sharing the shaky foundations of his climate change skepticism, yet Montanans owe him a deep debt of gratitude for exposing a significant oversight in an official PCS press release concerning a $6.5 million rate increase for NorthWestern Energy customers.

That is, the press release neglected to mention the proposed increase. At all.

The PSC took up the issue during an Oct. 30 work session, and issued the press release two days later. Koopman subsequently issued a lengthy statement calling out the commission for approving a complex agreement without debate, for failing to make this information public and for ignoring his request for a correction.

PSC Chair Brad Johnson, who represents District 5, admitted that the information should have been included in the release but defended the omission as an honest mistake. He also noted that additional opportunities for discussion would be upcoming, and that the commission’s approval was only one step in a process that has been ongoing for months and is not expected to be finalized until late December.

NorthWestern Energy had originally proposed a $34.8 million rate increase; the PSC granted the company an interim increase of $10 million in February. Last week, the PSC rejected NorthWestern’s proposal to hike rates for net meter customers — those with solar panels that generate their own power. The company counts some 370,000 electricity ratepayers in Montana, and only about 2,100 net meter customers.

Among NorthWestern’s customers are Missoula residents Harold and Jan Hoem, Karen Nash Joynt and Joe Toth, who made the drive to Helena to attend an Oct. 15 meeting of the PSC. They were disappointed to learn, after they arrived in time for the 9:30 a.m. meeting, that it had been canceled just an hour prior without explanation. It was, in fact, the second time the meeting had been canceled and rescheduled.

In his most recent public statement, Koopman described the commission as “habitually dysfunctional” and “politically dominated.” Abruptly canceled public meetings and deficient press releases bolster the former charge. And District 1 Commissioner Randy Pinocci lent a hefty dollop of evidence to the latter when he spoke at a Red Pill Expo in Nevada earlier this month.

Pinocci has attended previous Red Pill conferences, including one held in Bozeman a couple of years back. The most recent one promised to help “Truth Seekers understand how the world really works,” and featured among its speakers a prominent anti-vaccine activist and Ammon Bundy, who led the 2016 armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, among others.

Pinocci’s comments centered on encouraging attendees to run for public office. The public did not pay his expenses to attend the conference, but he wore his PSC name badge as he spoke, and mentioned that he asked the PSC staff to look into the potential health effects from radio-frequency energy transmitted by 5G wireless after hearing about it at the conference.

“I’m doing the best I can to listen to my constituents’ concerns and try to address them,” he told the Montana Free Press, which reported on his attendance at the Red Pill expo.

It’s doubtful, however, that many of Pinnoci’s constituents made plans to meet with him in Arizona. Rather, they were back home in Montana, driving long distances to attend canceled meetings.

The PSC has to do better than this. It must be accessible to the public, which means its meeting schedule must be reliable. Similarly, the information it puts out to the public must likewise be complete and accurate — as well as the information its members rely on to make their decisions.

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