HELENA –The Montana Supreme Court on Monday sided with solar power developers and environmentalists who had accused regulators and the state’s largest utility of trying to kill renewable energy projects.
Justices in a 4-3 opinion upheld a lower court ruling from last year that said members of the Montana Public Service Commission knew their actions would hinder solar development when they suspended a federal law requiring companies to buy power from alternative energy sources.
The commission set rates for NothWestern Energy in 2017 that would-be solar developers said would hurt the economic feasibility of small solar projects by limiting the length of contracts, lowering rates and ignoring greenhouse gas emission reductions from solar.
Developers sued and argued the rates violated the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act. They said stronger prices and longer contracts are needed to obtain financing.
After Manley ruled in their favor, the commission appealed and asked justices to reinstate the 2017 rates. But Chief Justice Mike McGrath said Manley had concluded correctly that the decision by the Public Service Commission, or PSC, was based on an “arbitrary and unlawful” analysis of electricity costs in the case.
“The PSC’s decision was clearly erroneous,” McGrath wrote for the majority.
Clean energy advocates said the ruling could open the way to more solar power development and noted that no large solar projects had been built in Montana since the 2017 decision.
“This will force NorthWestern Energy to treat renewables more fairly and ultimately will result in a more competitive market,”” said Sachu Constantine with Vote Solar, a California-based advocacy group and one of the plaintiffs in the case.
NorthWestern spokesperson Jo Dee Black said the utility was reviewing the ruling. A Public Service Commission spokesman did not immediately respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment.