Guest Column

Keeping Energy Rates Low for All Montanans

In his Viewpoints letter to the Beacon on March 29 Mr. Roger Sherman made some misguided statements about some legislation that I am sponsoring. I am grateful to him for giving me this teachable moment. He made some vague statement that my bills “oppose solar and other alternative energy” without giving any evidence. I wonder if he has read the bills. I think the bills he is referring to are SB 32 and SB 78.

SB 32 was requested by the Public Service Commission (PSC). It repeals the Community Renewable Energy Project (CREP) from Montana law. CREP was designed to promote the development of small renewable projects by local owners, but by definition, it is not working. CREPs are costly. They are limited to 25 megawatts and under, so they lack the economy of scale of larger projects. These projects by law have a cost cap. They are supposed to be acquired only if they are no more costly than alternatives, but because the law constrains their size to 25 megawatts, and because larger projects are less costly, this is a process that is set up to fail. It is also difficult to find Montanans with enough capital to qualify as an investor. It has cost the PSC time and money to vet CREPs without success. Therefore the need to remove this part of code is not opposing solar as Mr. Sherman portrayed.

SB 78 would revise net metering laws. Net metering is when a utility customer puts solar panels on their property to generate their own energy. That can be a financial benefit to the customer. The question comes on what to do with the extra power that is generated. Is it wasted, given away, stored or sold? Current technology does not have economical ways to store the extra energy. MCA 69-8-603 section 3b has the utility give credit for the excess kilowatt hours. Those credits are at the full retail rate. That is the full retail rate when the utility could buy wholesale power at about one-third of the cost. SB 78 deals with the extra kilowatts generated by the net metering customer. It would have the PSC determine the pros and cons of net metering and then determine the value of that extra energy. It is the other ratepayers who are paying for that extra energy. Are they getting a fair value? There are numerous tax credits and tax exemptions for net metering at the state and federal levels. Is a full retail reimbursement needed to make net metering work?

Mr. Sherman did quote me correctly from an email I sent to him. I said that solar and wind energy are weak energy sources that need backup generation that hydro, coal or natural gas can provide. NorthWestern Energy had to build the natural gas powered David Gates generating facility at Anaconda for $56 million to accommodate the fluctuations in unreliable renewable generation facilities in their portfolio. No net metering generators contributed to the cost of this facility. The ratepayers did.

Mr. Sherman stated that large corporations are turning to solar. That may be true and brings out how solar production is mainly done by those that can afford it. Most rooftop solar arrays are too expensive for low- to middle-income individuals. The pay back takes a long time. They need tax breaks as well as a high return on their extra power paid for by other electric customers to make the investment work.

Coal generation at Colstrip has powered the Northwest United States since the 1970s. It has been an inexpensive and reliable source of energy. Mr. Sherman said that I should “get on board” with renewable energy. There needs to be reason not hysteria driving energy production. A mix of energy sources will serve us better than putting all of our eggs in one basket.

Montana has greatly benefited from the Coal Tax Trust Fund. Many infrastructure projects around the state have been funded by coal tax as well as large contributions to our state General Fund. The trust fund is now over $1 billion and will serve the people of this state for years to come. I wonder if the renewable community would be opposed to a Renewable Energy Tax Trust Fund? Or will that be viewed as anti-renewable?

Montana had a lot of cold weather this past winter. On Jan. 5 the morning temperatures across the state were almost all below zero. Energy use was high. Utilities had to be prepared for the increased usage with large amounts of extra power to meet the demand. In the predawn darkness, when it was the coldest, no net metering unit contributed to keeping Montanans warm and safe. Mr. Sherman’s renewable world has a ways to go before it is viable. In the mean time I will work to keep the lights on and the rates low for all Montanans.

Keith Regier is a Republican state senator from Kalispell.