Ten years ago, Montana lawmakers enacted a RES requiring utilities (competitive electricity suppliers were added to the law in 2007) to obtain a percentage of their retail customer sales from renewable resources. Beginning in 2008, utilities were mandated to acquire renewable energy equal to 5% of its retail sales, increasing to 10% in 2010, and finally 15% in 2015.
In 2013, lawmakers passed the Renewable Power Production and Rural Economic Development Act to study the economic impacts of the RES knowing that utilities were nearing the 15% standard. Last fall, the report was finished. It concluded that the law did indeed have a positive economic impact on rural communities. However, the eight-member committee failed to recommend increasing the standard, beyond the 15% RES by 2015. The committee did acknowledge that changes might occur as a result of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
This committee recommendation did not stop ALEC-connected Senator Debby Barrett from once again introducing a bill, SB 114, to include hydro facilities in the standard. Barrett’s bill would free utilities from the requirement to purchase renewable energy credits. The bill passed both legislative chambers only to be vetoed by Governor Steve Bullock. In his veto, Bullock wrote:
The RPS has been a strong driver of economic development, especially in rural areas… SB 114 would completely defeat the purpose of the RPS by expanding the definition of resources eligible to meet renewable energy standards to include existing hydropower… with the end result that Montana’s legitimate renewable credits are devalued.
Bullock vetoed a similar bill introduced by Sen. Barrett in 2013.
A NorthWestern Energy spokesperson said that the utility, which is the largest in the state, accepts the RES as it is and can secure enough renewable power to meet the mandate through 2022 (Northwestern recently closed on a $900 million purchase of 11 hydro facilities from PPL Montana).
Montana Net Metering Attacked
Montana’s distributed energy law was also not shielded from debate this year, and it will likely remain a subject of debate next year.
Debate began last fall when a bipartisan op-ed from Republican Representative Art Wittich and Democrat Senator Mike Phillips announced their intent to introduce legislation to allow more businesses and families to generate their own electricity, while receiving full credit for electricity returned to the grid. NorthWestern Energy declared opposition to the proposal in a guest column in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and later announced support for a Senate joint resolution calling for an interim committee to assess the costs and benefits of net metering.
The legislation introduced by Wittich and Phillips, the Local Energy Investment Act, would have increased the net metering cap from 50 kilowatts to 1 megawatt. NorthWestern Energy lobbied hard, and the bill quickly was defeated in the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications committee. The Senate joint resolution passed, and the study will be reported back to the chamber next year.
Additionally, Montana-Dakota Utilities Company (MDU), has proposed an “unprecedented” fee to the Montana Public Service Commission on net metering customers that is built in the 21% rate increase on customers’ bills. The net metering fee would only apply to few ratepayers, but critics have said this is happening because as electricity prices are going to increase more families would likely invest in small-scale renewables, such as distributed solar. The MDU fee would be $1.50 per kilowatt of electricity demand.