Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With an eye on clean electricity, Missoula County last week signed an agreement with a law firm to navigate the final steps of crafting a Green Power Program before taking the proposal to the Montana Public Service Commission for final approval.

The effort, which also includes the cities of Missoula and Bozeman, would be the first green tariff in Montana and would mark a major step in achieving the three governments' goal of achieving 100% clean electricity within the coming years.

“The agreement is that these three governments agree to buy a certain amount of electricity,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It's not a done deal. It still needs to go to the PSC. But we've made incredible headway. There are versions of this in the West, but nothing like this in the state.”

The proposal has been in the works since January 2021 and is closely tied to the stated goal of achieving 100% clean electricity by 2030. The effort achieved a milestone last November when both the city and county of Missoula approved a term sheet guiding their agreement NorthWestern Energy.

As proposed thus far, a new solar or wind generating project would be built to serve the Green Power Program. It would also be large enough “to provide clean electricity to NorthWestern Energy commercial customers and hundreds of residential customers.”

The size of the project will be determined by how much energy participants are willing to purchase over the life of the program, or around 25 years. Residential customers will have a chance to subscribe after local governments.

“Not only will we have access to this power, but this power will be made available to other commercial and industrial subscribers, and also community members,” said Karen Hughes, the county's director of planning, development and sustainability. “The next piece has been working with the Public Service Commission.”

To reach that point, the county last week signed a contract with the UDA Law Firm, based in Helena. The firm will represent the participants as they prepare to take the program to the PSC for final adoption.

“The county and the communities have been negotiating those documents with NorthWestern,” said Hughes. “We're getting close to an agreement, which means we need to bring on legal counsel to make sure everything is in order.”

Advocates of the Green Power Program said “green tariffs” are an increasingly common tool that customers of regulated utilities are using to purchase power from clean energy sources. But in Montana, no such program exists.

In 2019, the PSC directed NorthWestern to explore the possibility of developing a green tariff. The order was part of a settlement agreement between the power company and several other groups, including Walmart, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and the Montana Consumer Council.

Once the PSC approves the current Green Power Program, project leaders will solicit proposals for a new renewable energy project. Local governments would have first access to the clean electricity, but other subscribers would have an option to join.

“Until they're final, they're not final,” said Hughes. “I would anticipate toward the end of June to put those out for public review and comment, and hopefully approval so we can move ahead. We've been working pretty steadfast together throughout the process. We've made progress, and I think we're on the cusp of getting everything together.”