Sustainable Missoula: PSC must give Montanans the chance to build a clean energy future

Large numbers of Montanans attended the Public Service Commission ‘s public hearing on NorthWestern Energy’s rate case last month. (Courtesy photo)

In a public comment period on May 23, 40 Montanans from Missoula, Gardiner, Livingston, Helena, Billings and Montana City packed the Public Service Commission hearing room to voice their concerns over NorthWestern Energy’s ongoing electric rate case.

That hearing room is usually fairly empty, but Montanans are riled up. NorthWestern’s rate case hearings started in May, and the PSC is expected to deliver a decision by the end of the year. It is the first time in a decade NorthWestern Energy has proposed to change the rates it charges customers.

Among the top concerns are NorthWestern’s proposed demand charges for rooftop solar customers, as well as several other proposed changes that could make electricity more expensive for customers and would move Montana away from a renewable energy future.

Much of the deliberation on the rate case is happening behind closed doors, and the technically wonky nature of the case makes it hard to capture public attention, despite the fact that the proposed rate changes could have serious and significant impacts for NorthWestern’s ratepayers, and all who care about a livable climate. That’s why we wanted to highlight some of the voices of those who have spoken out at recent public meetings. Here they are, in their own words:

Rooftop solar owner Claudia Narcisco asked Commissioner Bob Lake to take her message back to the rest of the PSC: “I made the investment in solar because it was the right thing to do. … The right thing to do is to recognize all the costs of climate change, extra costs to the health-care system, extra costs of loss of life due to heat waves, sea level rise, extra costs associated with damages from extreme weather events, extra costs of catastrophic wildland fire, extra costs from the degradation of Montana’s clean water and world-class fisheries … and the priceless cost of intrinsic, non-commodity values such as our wildlands and wildlife. I request that you factor in all of these costs in your consideration.”

Missoula resident Robbie Liben reminded the Public Service Commission that net metered energy systems like solar are a critical piece of fighting climate change: “If you make net metering harder to do, you will be cutting one of the strands of the lifeline that is being thrown to humanity. For what? For more profit? For NorthWestern Energy’s shareholders? Why don’t you make it so NorthWestern Energy puts solar panels on every roof in the state? … The world is partly in your hands.”

At this latest hearing in Helena, Pat Bik spoke on behalf of Northern Plains Resource Council, stating, “Our members stand united in asking [the PSC] to reject this proposal. Rooftop solar is a key part of the resiliency of the grid.”

Joel, from Sleeping Giant Citizens Council, said, “I recently purchased my first house and have been excited for years to put on solar panels. Rather than supporting us, this proposal is meant to punish us. The words ‘new rate class’ and ‘rate structure’ are just words for punishment.”

And several folks spoke about how changes making net metered solar more expensive could severely harm Montana’s solar industry, warning that “if you approve this you will decimate multiple small businesses,” and “the demand charge might increase profit for one company, but it will decimate an entire industry.”

The Forward Montana Foundation urged the PSC to think of young Montanans and generations to come: “Montanans want to move towards a future with affordable, clean energy. We urge you to support changes that help prepare us for a renewable energy future, not move us further away. … You are the first line of defense against overreach. As the rate case continues, we ask you to uphold your mandate to regulate NorthWestern Energy in the public interest and value young Montanans and thousands of Montana ratepayers over the profit motives of NorthWestern Energy shareholders and executives.”

Buried in the wonky details of NorthWestern Energy’s electric rate case are significant questions about Montana’s energy future. Questions like: Should NorthWestern Energy be allowed to impose a new demand charge to single out and penalize rooftop solar customers, despite the many benefits distributed solar provides for the grid? Should electric ratepayers (including most Montanans and Missoulians) be charged more for electricity to cover Colstrip cleanup costs? Should NorthWestern Energy be allowed to prioritize high profits and high returns for shareholders over affordable, clean energy?

While NorthWestern Energy’s actions would seem to be at the center of this case, it’s worth remembering that the job of our elected members of the PSC is to regulate monopoly utility companies like NorthWestern Energy in the public interest. We need to continue to call on our commissioners to do their job to protect not just individual solar customers, but to give all Montana communities a chance to build a clean energy future where the next generations can thrive.

Want to share your views about the rate case with the Public Service Commission? It’s not too late. To comment, head to http://psc.mt.gov, click “Comment on a Proceeding” under the “Documents & Proceedings” tab, and reference Docket No. D2018.2.12. You can also give public comment in person while the rate case proceedings are in session. Call the PSC for more information.

Kiah Abbey is the Deputy Director of Forward Montana Foundation, a statewide organization engaging and educating young Montanans in the democratic process.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

June 7. EPI’s Annual First Friday celebration. Music, art, family-friendly activities and more, with a climate focus. At Ecology Project International, 315 S. 4th St E., 5-8pm.

June 7. Energy Smart Tour of the Historic Swift Building. Learn about energy upgrades and sustainable practices. Registration optional but encouraged. 315 S. 4th St E., 5:30pm.

June 13. Climate Smart Missoula’s Monthly Meetup. This month’s topic is water protection and conservation. At Imagine Nation Brewing, 5-7:00pm. Special pre-gathering bike tour coordinated by the Missoula Architects + Design Group, with details here.

June 20. Free showing of Paris to Pittsburgh, followed by a panel discussion. Hosted by Climate Smart Missoula and Families for a Livable Climate. The Roxy Theater, 7pm.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.