Short Circuit

By Beacon Staff

All this “spring,” I’ve watched the fight over HB 198, the power-line eminent domain bill passed from the Legislature to Governor Brian Schweitzer by a polyglot coalition of Democrats and Republicans.

Property rights aside, I first felt HB 198 was a technicality. Now I’m worried that HB 198 might really short-circuit Montana’s energy future if it becomes law.

Last month, I read an interesting Atlantic essay, Think Locally, Destroy Globally, which discussed oh-so-green California’s hypocritical willingness to cover other landscapes with solar panels and turbine towers.

Then, on April 12, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 2X, which will increase California’s renewable electricity requirement (RES for short) from 20 percent by 2020, to 33 percent by 2020. Columnist Mark Landsbaum of the <a href="http://www.ocregister.com/opinion/-296431–.html" title="Orange County Register“>Orange County Register has covered how stupid that was, so I’ll settle for saying that hard-wiring ourselves to California may be equally stupid.

On April 16, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE) announced it will invest $250 million (of $700 million total) in NaturEner’s proposed Rim Rock wind farm north of Great Falls. Rim Rock is planned at 309 megawatts, with SDGE’s money guaranteeing 189 megawatts will be built – on our landscape, of course. Coincidence? Nah.

Rim Rock depends on construction of the Montana-Alberta Tie Line (MATL) power line (for which HB 198 was written). And, as the Billings Gazette reported last year, there are several complementary proposals, the Mountain States line to Idaho (MSTI), Northwestern’s “collector” net plus Colstrip upgrade, and best of all, the Chinook proposal from Harlowton – direct to southern California!

What if the lines aren’t built? No problem! The fine print of SDGE’s Rim Rock press release states the Rim Rock deal “involves ‘tradable renewable energy credits’ (TRECs)” enabling SDGE to “count the ‘green attributes’ of the wind power toward its renewable energy requirement” even if SDGE customers never actually use the power.

Juice as a tradable commodity? That’s no surprise considering that SDGE is owned by Sempra. The result of a 1998 utility merger, Sempra has rapidly evolved into a world-wide commodities trading firm – among other things, Sempra bought Enron’s metals-trading subsidiary which, according to CFO Magazine, now produces over half of Sempra’s net income.

Never mind that Sempra agreed last year to pay $400 million back to ratepayers over “Enron-style” rate-gaming during the 2000-2001 California energy crisis – when the state of California borrowed $11 billion (that it still can’t pay) to keep the lights on.

Sempra’s goal is, as CFO put it, to “cash in on the country’s thirst for energy,” not just “renewable” (and non-) electricity, but other energy types. By flowing commodity energy to highest-bidder markets, Sempra gets the cash it wants.

For example, Sempra partnered in the 2009 completion of the 1,700 mile, 42-inch, $4-billion-plus REX natural gas pipeline from Wyoming to Ohio. REX flows cheap Rockies gas to the Midwest’s huge customer base – just like El Paso is building another 42-inch pipeline west from Wyoming to the Left Coast’s gas network at Malin, Ore.

The end result is that we in Montana and Wyoming now must compete with much bigger buyer pools for “our” share of inland West gas at a higher price, in a more-volatile national and global market. Building power “pipelines” will do the same thing to Montana’s electricity. In the “renewable” market, at least, Montana will be a little fish in a really big pool with much bigger, faster fish – SDGE alone has 3.5 million customers.

The bottom line: When these big utilities look for places to put these wind farms, they will have dibs on the best sites – the big California fish beating the little Montana fish to the best Montana hidey-holes.

The job of protecting Montana fish should fall to our Public Service Commissioners. But they made the news last week when Travis Kavulla, Republican, tag teamed with the two Democrats on the Commission to blast Bill Gallagher, Republican, out of the PSC chairmanship – so Kavulla could take over. Whether or not our power-tripping PSC will have enough brainpower left over to match that of SDGE’s operators seems doubtful, doesn’t it?

That might be why Gov. Schweitzer has told legislators to add a 2013 sunset clause to HB 198. And as much as it hurts for me to say it … I agree.

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