Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Your electricity bill is going up 12.6% this month, or $11.19, if you’re an average residential customer with NorthWestern Energy.

That’s $134.28 a year, but it’s less than the $170.16 a year the monopoly requested in its interim rate increase. That would have been nearly 16 percent more.

Last week, the Montana Public Service Commission voted to approve that bump. As part of lengthy commentary at the meeting, one commissioner also suggested one city in particular — Missoula — should get hit with “brownouts,” or temporary reductions in power, if NorthWestern must implement them.

At the meeting, the PSC also approved another $0.48 in the average natural gas bill, or 0.7%. In the case of natural gas, NorthWestern had asked for the equivalent of $1.60 more on average a month for residential customers.

The higher rates aren’t permanent just yet, and Friday, PSC staff attorney Lucas Hamilton said a public hearing will likely take place in April 2023 in advance of a vote on any final increase — or vote on a refund if the commission decides NorthWestern overcharged customers.

Hamilton also said he had not seen any material from the energy utility that indicated it was contemplating brownouts, although he also had not reviewed every single page of recent submissions. (A NorthWestern spokesperson was out of the office Friday, and a voicemail left for a substitute was not immediately returned.)

The Montana Consumer Counsel did not weigh in on the temporary rate increase, but Hamilton noted the agency that advocates for customers is heavily involved in NorthWestern’s request for a permanent hike.

At the meeting where commissioners approved the increase, they defended it as necessary for the financial health of NorthWestern Energy. Commissioner Brad Johnson, for instance, said the utility was only going to get what it was rightly entitled to recover in the short term.

“I hated to have to make the motion to increase rates,” Johnson said. “None of us on this commission or on this staff or with the utility want to see these prices go up. But we are confronted by a thing called reality that we simply have to deal with here.”

A PSC staff report noted NorthWestern experienced a decline in its earnings in the first half of 2022. It said over the last five years, the company’s return on electricity has been less than the PSC has authorized.

“NorthWestern’s earnings levels support the need for an interim increase,” said the report.

However, the staff report recommended less of an increase than the utility wanted in the short term. The regulatory body is charged with ensuring customers pay a fair rate and utilities earn fair returns.

Commissioner Randy Pinocci said constituents have been grilling him about rates given other costs such as property taxes and inflation, and he needs to have good answers for them.

He also said if NorthWestern Energy implements brownouts, ratepayers have asked him how the company decides which cities experience them.

Pinocci said testimony from Missoulians indicated they didn’t mind if their power was shut off now and then, “so maybe Missoula is the one to turn off.” He figured they wouldn’t like it in winter, though.

“I think in the event that happens in 20 below, then they will have a very different attitude,” Pinocci said.

In a story from Lee Enterprises, Winona Bateman with Families for Livable Climate said she hadn’t heard Missoulians asking for brownouts. The Families for Livable Climate group has been critical of NorthWestern’s plan to continue coal operations and its desire to build methane plants.

“I would love to know the source of who’s signing up Missoula for brownouts because I think that seems like an odd comment,” Bateman said. “No one to my knowledge has said that.”

Pinocci also said Montanans are facing not only higher power bills, but inflation, and he’s getting tough questions. All the commissioners are Republicans, but he said because Republicans in the state control the Montana Legislature and are in the governor’s seat, the GOP must act on property tax reductions as it has promised.

“I’m gonna put them on the spot and say you’ve got to get a handle on some reasonable property taxes,” he said.