When it comes to getting credit for rooftop solar energy, Missoula residents don’t trust the Public Service Commission, and they definitely don’t trust NorthWestern Energy.

Public Service Commissioner Bob Lake got an earful Wednesday night during a listening session related to an upcoming energy rate case.

Thirty of the almost 50 people attending argued that the PSC should not allow NorthWestern Energy to create a new more expensive billing category for net-metering customers. No one spoke in support of the proposal.

“NorthWestern Energy is a monopoly, and the job of the Public Service Commission is to protect ratepayers from monopolistic overreach. NorthWestern Energy has cleverly packaged this as ratepayer versus ratepayer. But that’s not what it is – it’s ratepayer versus NorthWestern Energy’s out of state stockholders,” said 350Montana co-founder John Woodland.

NWE claims that customers who own rooftop solar panels have an advantage over those who don’t. Under the current net-metering plan, customers who produce solar energy can get credit on their bill at the same price people buy energy. When they produce a lot of energy, they can zero out their bill except for the basic service charge, and NWE insists that non-solar customers are left paying for the electrical grid.

So NWE’s proposal would add a “demand charge” to the bills of new net-metering customers, charging them an extra $8.64 per kilowatt during the hour they use the most energy each month. NWE would offset that by charging net-metering customers about half of what non-solar customers pay for energy – about 6 cents per kilowatt-hour - but opponents argued that’s not enough to offset the demand charge.

The Montana Renewable Energy Association calculated that net-metering bills would be about 30 percent more than they are now, reducing the incentive for people to install solar systems.

Todd Cockran said a demand charge is normally applied to commercial users who demand large amounts of energy, so it’s an inappropriate way to charge net-metering customers who don’t use a lot of energy. He pointed out that the highest demand for residential customers in winter is usually on holidays.

“It’s on those days that the proposed one hour of maximum electricity will be charged. That’s NorthWestern Energy’s way of saying ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ and ‘Merry Christmas,’” Cockran said.

Ann Green said she and her husband had a dream of replacing their 20-year-old Subaru with an electric car. But charging an electric car takes a lot of energy, and the resulting demand charge could cost around $60.

Customers who already have rooftop solar systems would be grandfathered into the existing billing structure without a demand charge. That would apply to almost all those who spoke Wednesday so they wouldn’t have to pay a demand charge, but they opposed the proposal for two more reasons: future modifications and future generations.

Current net-metering customers are grandfathered only for what they have. If they try to upgrade their system, they can lose their status.

One resident worried he would lose his investment in his house because a potential buyer wouldn’t get the same deal on their electrical bill.

But mostly, people were concerned that the resulting lack of monetary incentive would mean fewer people investing in rooftop solar and thus the transition to green energy would be delayed.

About 30 Missoula residents made comments at Wednesday night's listening session on NorthWestern Energy's rate case. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
About 30 Missoula residents made comments at Wednesday night's listening session on NorthWestern Energy's rate case. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Jeremy Keene, city of Missoula's Public Works director, said having more residents with rooftop solar power was key to Missoula’s plan to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2030. He said NWE’s claims of costs being shifted to non-solar customers didn’t appear to hold up, because other calculations showed the cost shift was negligible.

“At the very least, we need more information, and we need an objective opinion about how those costs are being allocated,” Keene said. “The city of Missoula thinks this is something that Montanans want and deserve the freedom to choose.”

Mike Sudik of Big Sky Solar and Wind said NWE hired Navigant to conduct its study on whether cost-shifting exists, but not enough Montanans have rooftop solar to make an accurate assessment yet. And no one outside NWE has seen all the data.

“I’ve run into with Navigant before. They are huge proponents of solar. They write lots of reports for lots of utility companies and states saying how great the benefits are of solar. I’m pretty sure they’ll write what you tell them to write,” Sudik said.

After an hour of questioning NorthWestern Energy’s intentions, some audience members started questioning Lake himself, asking why he was the only commissioner attending and how the other four commissioners were to hear their two-hours worth of comments. Several mentioned their disappointment that the PSC had gone against PSC staff recommendations and supported a bill that would have allowed NWE to buy a bigger interest in Colstrip’s coal power plants and reduced PSC oversight. The bill failed.

Only PSC Commissioner Bob Lake of Hamilton attended Wednesday night's listening session in Missoula. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
Only PSC Commissioner Bob Lake of Hamilton attended Wednesday night's listening session in Missoula. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

“You hear from our responses that we’re suspicious whether you’re really listening rather than going through the motions,” said Eric Mendelson. “Here’s a plea for the whole PSC, including the four-fifths of the commission that isn’t here: show us that you’re listening to us more than you’re listening to the well-remunerated shareholders. ‘Cause we’ll be watching.”

Lake said listening sessions aren’t the same as hearings, therefore the meeting was recorded but comments wouldn’t be transcribed. Three other commissioners were holding their own listening sessions in Bozeman, Helena and Great Falls.

Lake said he’d be willing to talk to any group during the next three weeks while the rate case is being heard.

Patricia Ames pointed out that Lake was terming out of the PSC, so this might be one of his last cases.

“I really hope that you will do the right thing in your waning months,” Ames said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.