Opinion: Anti-solar bill will effectively destroy industry, cost Montana jobs

House Bill 359, introduced by Rep. Brewster – R, Billings, will effectively destroy Montana’s solar industry and cost the state hundreds of well-paying jobs provided by local businesses across the state.

The issue at hand is net metering, which is a billing mechanism that allows Montanans who invested in rooftop solar and small wind systems to get credits on their energy bills for any excess electricity that they send back out to the grid. The excess energy goes to their neighbors to use, which the utility gets paid for. The bill credits can be used later to help lower their energy costs.

The proposed legislation intends to upend that program by reducing the value of solar credits by about 70%, which will increase the time it takes to pay off the investment by up to decades. What’s worse is the changes would impact the more than 3,000 Montanans who currently own rooftop solar and small wind systems.

These aren’t just households; they are our libraries, schools, fire stations, small businesses, and farmers and ranchers. This bill is signaling to Montanans – all Montanans – that they shouldn’t be allowed to produce their own energy to save money on their electricity bills.

In 2019, the Montana Public Service Commission reviewed a detailed study of rooftop solar energy for the costs and benefits to Montanans, even those that don’t have or want solar energy on their rooftop. Their conclusion was that reducing the crediting rate for rooftop solar is not justified. This brought a punctuated end to a conversation that started long ago.

For years now, our utility has tried to pit customers against each other by saying that solar customers aren’t paying their fair share for the grid. The 2019 rate review was an opportunity to prove whether or not that was true.

The rate review itself took more than a year, with thousands of pages of detailed studies, testimony, questioning, and cross-examination. Forty-seven different witnesses took the stand, representing more than a dozen intervening parties (including MREA). The hearings took two weeks. At the end of it, the Commission ruled unanimously (5-0) that solar customers are covering their fair share of costs and reducing the credit is not justified. 

Changing rates is no small matter, nor should it be. But this bill tries to sidestep all of that expert analysis and discussion in two short pages. This legislation is punitive, and bad for Montana. Governor Gianforte’s Comeback Plan focuses heavily on creating jobs to help boost our economy.

There are hundreds of solar jobs in Montana, but there could be thousands. Montana is lagging behind our neighbors in Idaho, South Dakota, and Nebraska in solar jobs. Solar in Montana is a small business industry, one that we should be supporting.

This legislation does the exact opposite. We hope our elected leaders see this. Contact your Representative to ask them to oppose this legislation that is bad for business and bad for Montanans.

Andrew Valainis is the executive director of the Montana Renewable Energy Association. MREA is a non-profit organization that works to educate and advocate for renewable energy across Montana.