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Far from Texas energy crisis, battle over solar energy in Montana raises similar concerns

The competition over powering the grid.

Updated: February 21, 2021 - 3:22pm

A years-long legal battle over solar energy in Montana is raising concerns about consumer pricing and grid reliability in the shadows of the unexpected winter energy crisis in Texas.

As Texas has experienced significant power loss over the past week with record-low temperatures and wind turbines freezing up, the struggle between green energy and fossil fuels has never been more apparent. 

On Sharyl Attkisson's "Full Measure After Hours," she examined this power struggle in Montana, where the state Supreme Court made the final decision regarding NorthWestern Energy and solar companies. 

In 2017, the Public Service Commission, Montana's utility regulator, decided to slash the rates that the utility monopoly NorthWestern Energy would have to pay solar companies by 40%. This decision benefited  NorthWestern Energy while harming the solar companies. 

Anne Hedges, from the nonprofit Montana Environmental Information Center, addressed the Public Service Commission's decision. "They made a rule or decision that disadvantaged, really grossly disadvantaged, these solar energy developers," Hedges said. "But we thought that that was wrong. We thought it was not in line with what federal law required, and it certainly wasn't in line with the spirit of the law, which is intended to encourage these small businesses to really be able to thrive." 

The federal law mentioned was created as a result of the 1970s energy crisis. Because of the gas shortage, skyrocketing oil prices, fuel rations, and long gas station lines, Congress passed "The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act" in 1978. The purpose of this law was to encourage energy conservation and make electric monopolies buy some of their power from alternative energy projects. 

Nowadays, states are left with the task to work out the contracts between renewable energy companies and fossil fuel companies. 

During the Montana Public Service Commission meeting in 2017 regarding NorthWestern Energy, there was a controversial hot mic moment between commissioner Bob Lake and a staff member. 

"Honestly at this low price, I can’t imagine anyone gonna get into it," Lake said to his staff member. The staff member replied: "No, no one." Lake then responded: "So, it's gonna be, it becomes a totally moot point because just dropping the rate that much probably took care of the whole thing." 

The Montana Environmental Information Center sued the Public Service Commission on the basis of the 1978 energy law and ultimately won last year in the Montana Supreme Court. 

Because of the court's decision, NorthWestern Energy will pay solar companies 144% more than what the Public Service Commission advised, a cost that will be felt by consumers. 

Roger Koopman, who was on the Public Service Commission that voted to cut the solar rates, explained his view of the renewable energy's argument, as well as his thoughts on the situation: "So, they believe that there should be a premium price for renewables, that the renewables should get something extra. But I also think there's a general attitude that fine, renewable energy is great, go for it, but don't make me pay more for it. It should reflect the market cost of energy, no more, no less." 

With regard to the struggle between competing energy sources in the U.S., Hedges added, "So this conflict is coming up in many states across the nation where you have utilities who simply don't like to have to buy somebody else's electricity. So it's a really common conflict that's coming to a head." 

Attkisson concluded, "With the coronavirus shutdown, there's been less demand for electricity for stores and offices. NorthWestern Energy is joining those predicting shortage of reliable energy as coal-fired power plants in the region close." 

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