Monica Tranel

In October, the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) unanimously authorized a rate increase of more than $90 million for Northwestern Energy. In response to complaints about high rates, the Commission issued a statement telling us to turn our heat down.

In April there will be a hearing to determine whether these rate hikes are permanent, and whether they’ll increase even further. Our elected officials need to be held accountable for increasing the cost of corporate monopoly power.

NorthWestern’s rate hikes affect you even if you are served by a cooperative at home. Do you shop at Walmart, have kids in school, or have medical appointments?

NorthWestern provides service to main population corridors that include schools, medical clinics, and businesses in places like Thompson Falls, Havre, and Hamilton. If you travel to Bozeman, Butte, Helena or Missoula to shop, or for medical care, you pay the rate hikes in the services and goods you buy.

NorthWestern is doubling down on outdated, inefficient, polluting power sources because those are the most profitable for it. But we pay the price, as seen in repeated rate hikes and new projects being advanced forcefully and against the will of communities. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can become more independent. We can generate power here at home, keep our bills low, and make money for Montana.

The Inflation Reduction Act offers plenty of ways to deliver for Montana. For example, citizens, communities, schools, and businesses can get tax credits for installing solar panels. That lowers electric bills, and keeps money in everyone’s pockets. Best of all, it offers us some independence from our heavy-handed monopoly utility.

NorthWestern has repeatedly tried to discourage solar panels, with bills in every legislative session to tie consumers’ hands while fortifying their monopoly. The pursuit of power and profit is relentless, and often aided by the legislature.

The keys to keeping our electric bills low are a modernized grid with many sources of electricity, rather than fewer, centralized (and expensive) power plants. Our neighboring state South Dakota generates nearly three times the wind energy and has over 20 times the wind jobs than Montana does.

True energy independence allows us to keep our lights and heat on when the grid is down. We can choose whether we want to buy expensive fuel using last century’s resources, or whether we want to transition to new technology that allows us to have cheap, reliable, and sustainable power. We don’t have to pay the cost of corporate power.

The IRA gives Montanans plenty of ways to make money off our natural resources and ensure true energy independence. It’s time to rethink the model of a monopoly utility that has big expensive plants designed for corporate profit. As we move through the energy transition, let’s keep an eye on whose interests our elected officials are looking out for.

Monica Tranel is an attorney with experience as a staff attorney at the PSC, the Consumer Counsel, and currently represents clients before the PSC.