Western Montana’s PSC candidates debate energy, climate change

Monica Tranel, the Democratic candidate for District 4 on the Montana Public Service Commission, and Republican candidate Jennifer Fielder debated energy regulation, the free market, monopoly utilities, climate change and renewable energy on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.

While a number of issues separate western Montana’s two candidates for the Public Service Commission, the largest division may lie in their views on clean energy and the state’s transition to the energy future.

Jennifer Fielder, the Republican candidate for District 4 on the PSC, and Democratic candidate Monica Tranel, squared off in a debate Monday hosted by City Club Missoula, where they offered their views on regulation, the free market, monopoly utilities, climate change and “green energy.”

Fielder, a two-term legislator from Thompson Falls, said green energy isn’t as green as many promote it to be.

“The average wind machine requires five tons of copper. But yet, the folks who purely advocate green energy are also advocating against mining,” Fielder said. “I think there’s a sad state of affairs in the debate over green versus traditional energy, because all have pros and all have cons. We need to be realistic over what they are.”

Fielder does support expanding alternative energy sources, and she carried a net-metering bill in the 2019 Legislature, which failed. But she also said the technology isn’t yet ready for prime time, and she wouldn’t promote wind and solar at the exclusion of traditional fossil fuels.

Regions that have done so have experienced power shortages, she said.

“We’ve got to be realistic and make sure people can have the power they need and want, when they need it and when they want it, and at a price they can afford,” Fielder said. “I believe green energy can play an important role in that, but we shouldn’t weaponize the government just to do away with the existing sources that are doing well.”

Tranel likened that status-quo approach to the late 1800s when goods were delivered by barge through canals. The steam engine soon rendered the canals obsolete, though the canal owners went and built more canals to compete.

“They doubled down on their technology and insisted because their profits demanded it, they were going to continue doing a technology that had gone away,” Tranel said. “That’s where we stand today. The energy transition is under way. It’s happening across the world.”

Tranel, a native of eastern Montana, said the state’s wind is constant and winter peaking, and much of western Montana has been served by hydro power for more than 100 years. She said the PSC is currently pricing wind at $21 a megawatt hour while consumers are paying over $70 a megawatt hour for Colstrip energy.

“We stand today at a time of moral imperative and market opportunity, and Montana should lead that transition,” Tranel said. “We don’t have time to be wringing our hands over whether or not we’re going to extract more profits from coal. That has passed. We’re talking about where our future leads. The economics are there and the only thing stopping it are politics.”

Montana’s Colstrip power plant. (John Adams/Montana Free Press)

While NorthWestern energy doubles down on Colstrip, energy that fuels the Pacific Northwest continues to move away from fossil fuels. The value of Colstrip has dwindled in recent years, allowing NorthWestern to purchase Puget Sound Energy’s 25% share of Costrip Unit 4 for just $1.

When asked who will front the environmental and climate costs down the road from NorthWestern’s pursuit of coal, Tranel said the system is rigged to favor the utility. It can pass on higher rates to consumers if it’s Colstrip investment fails, rather than absorb the risk as an investor-funded utility.

“What happened to all those liabilities? NorthWestern is shifting them all onto us, and they’re not telling us what they are,” Tranel said. “There is nothing stopping NorthWestern from buying all of Colstrip if it wanted to. The only reason it doesn’t want to do that is because it wants us, the ratepayers, to function as its default insurer for all the liability that Colstrip has.”

Fielder said the Legislature sets the statutes and the PSC can only follow them, whether they’re fair or not. She said the modeling on climate change is wrong, and the potential liabilities born by polluters who contribute to climate change may not come to fruition.

“If you look at what was modeled back in the 1970s, we were supposed to go through this horrible ice age, and that didn’t happen. Global warming models predicted the oceans would be boiling, and that didn’t happen,” Fielder said.

“We have to be careful not to jump on a bandwagon and say the sky is falling based on someone else’s opinion. We’re seeing scientists with contradictory conclusions about these debates, and the minority is being batted down. But some are starting to leave the majority consensus.”

Fielder said in the past 50 years, vehicle mileage has increased 200% and energy consumption has increased by 50%. Yet the aggregate emissions from six common pollutants has dropped by 74%.

“A lot of folks think that it’s worse than it is, but when you actually look at the data from what has transpired, some of the sky-is-falling modeling and projections haven’t panned out. The industries don’t want to create waste. Waste is expensive.”

Still, Fielder said Montana’s ratepayers would be better served by bringing all energy sources to the table and allowing them to compete equally in the fair market. Such principals make room for competition, and competition kills bad ideas and drives down costs.

“In many respects, the government does need to get out of the way and let these industries compete with each other,” Fielder said. “Allowing different options for your essential life services will be beneficial, not only to the consumers but also, in the long run, to the companies. We have to let freedom ring to the extent that we can.”

Tranel said Fielder’s “free market” approach lacked a general understanding of how the regulatory market works and what the PSC is supposed to do under state law.

She said the PSC exists to regulate “natural monopolies,” or areas of industry where consumers lack options. That includes a farmer’s reliance on the railroad in eastern Montana to ship goods, or a customer’s lack of utility options.

In Montana, NorthWestern Energy is considered a monopoly utility.

“These natural monopolies are for-profit corporations. They are in it to make money off you and the basic life services, like heating your house,” Tranel said. “We need commissioners who will follow facts, science and the law. We need to know what the rules are, and we need to know they’ll be applied fairly.”