Not many Montanans know exactly what the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) does, but this tiny state agency wields considerable influence over our pocketbooks, businesses, and lifestyle.
The purpose of the PSC is to regulate the quality and viability of service that investor-owned monopoly corporations provide in Montana. These monopolies include power companies, private water and wastewater utilities, dial-up telecom, and taxis and garbage haulers.
In return for getting the right to operate as monopolies, these businesses must guarantee Montanans reliable, affordable service. The PSC sets the rates Montanans pay for these services to balance a return on shareholder investment and customer affordability.
However, the PSC is about more than just affordable utility services. From its humble beginnings in 1907 as the Board of Railroad Commissioners, it has evolved into a statewide gatekeeper for innovation and prosperity. Decisions the PSC makes can help create Montana jobs or they can stifle progress.
Right now, the PSC has an especially important role to play in supporting the continued growth of Montana’s renewable, clean energy sector. This is essential to addressing the climate crisis, which is the crucial challenge of our time.
Done right, the PSC can support growth in renewable energy in a way that also creates more Montana jobs and keeps delivering affordable energy to consumers. The PSC can do this by setting reasonable rates for the excess electrons rooftop solar owners can sell back to NorthWestern Energy, or it can allow NorthWestern to overcharge producers for excess rooftop generation, ripping off consumers and stifling growth in clean energy jobs.
You can guess the path we’re on now. The current commissioners on the PSC have been digging in against innovation and caving to the whims of the industry they’re supposed to regulate.
The reality is that Montana politicians have not taken the PSC seriously for decades. Too often, it has a political stepping stone, an office for people to seek when they need to run for something. Retired legislators and career lobbyists often seek seats on the PSC to advance their careers, not advance Montana’s economy. As a result, the important work of the PSC gets lost in the blur of tired rhetoric, hot mic scandals, and outright illegal advocacy by the very commissioners who are supposed to protect Montana consumers.
Energy is just one sector of the economy where the PSC can make a big difference. What about other areas where much potential for new markets and jobs exist, but entrenched interests wield too much influence over the PSC, the State Legislature, and elsewhere in state government?
If we truly value a clean natural environment and jobs creation in renewable energy and fields throughout the economy; if we truly care about our neighbors, especially those who face the difficult reality of Colstrip’s power plants shutting down; if we want to keep Montana a special place for our kids and their kids, then it’s time that the PSC enters the 21st Century.
Sure, the regulated community deserves a seat at the table so they can pursue reasonable returns on capital investments, but the PSC shouldn’t cave to every corporate whim. We saw what happened with power utility deregulation in the late 90s, and we’re now witnessing the effects of rapid technological and social changes making their way here, coinciding with the imminent closure of our major electricity source.
We can embrace the future, or we can ignore the lessons of past mistakes and ignore reality. As a Montanan, I’m running for PSC to support the innovation that our state needs to create good jobs, protect consumers, and tackle the climate crisis.
Brett Rosenberg is a Missoula green building consultant and candidate for the Montana Public Service Commission.