Bill Would Count Existing Dams as Renewable Energy

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – State lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it easier for utilities to meet the standard for renewable energy production, a proposal that conservationists say would make the standard meaningless.

The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Debby Barrett, of Dillon, would allow electricity produced by large hydroelectric facilities to count toward state renewable resource requirements.

Montana utilities are required to procure 10 percent of their retail electricity sales from renewable resources. That jumps to 15 percent in 2015.

State law now counts only smaller hydroelectric facilities of 10 megawatts or less toward those requirements. Barrett’s bill would make all existing dams and hydroelectric facilities eligible renewable energy resources, as long as they are not federal facilities.

About 40 percent of Montana’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power, and the proposal would add approximately 1 gigawatt of existing power to the state renewable energy standard, said Kyla Wiens, an energy advocate for the Montana Environmental Information Center

The bill would add so much hydroelectric power that companies required to comply with the standard would not have to develop any new resources for the next 20 years, she said.

“This bill would essentially make the existing renewable energy standard meaningless,” Wiens said. “If all this hydro power is added, there’s no need to get any new renewable energy.”

Barrett said the intent of the bill is to recognize that water is a renewable resource, and the measure should not be a disincentive to developing wind power or other renewable resources in the state.

“If Northwestern (Energy) or anybody else can afford to develop it on a level playing field, they should go ahead,” Barrett said. “I would like a product produced economically so we can purchase it economically.”

Barrett said she believes the incremental increases in the renewable energy standard are “smoke and mirrors” that ensures certain companies can make money while the taxpayers subsidize their renewable energy initiatives.

Northwestern Energy, the state’s largest utility, did not immediately return a call for comment.

The Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee planned to hold a hearing on the bill Tuesday afternoon.

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