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by Brian Fadie

There are a number of bills on this subject that have been introduced in this legislative session.

Renewable Portfolio Standard

In 2005, a law was passed, sponsored by then State Senator Jon Tester, called the “Renewable Power Production and Rural Economic Development Act” (aka the Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS). The theory was that by requiring a modest amount of new renewable energy production Montana would: 1) have more clean electricity flowing on its grid; and 2) rural areas would reap economic benefits. This is precisely what happened, as new wind projects in particular were built and sited in rural areas, creating jobs, tax revenue, and land-lease payments. But 14 years later the requirements of the law still haven’t been completely complied with by NWE. It still needs to acquire 30 megawatts of “Community Renewable Energy Projects” (CREPs). This shortfall is largely due to the company dragging its feet all these years. This session HB 513 (Rep. Chris Pope, D-Bozeman) would increase the flexibility of the CREPs program and make it even easier for NWE to meet its legal obligation. MEIC supports this bill. NWE opposed it. The bill  passed the House on a 75 to 24 vote, and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate energy committee.

Unfortunately, there is also a bill that seeks to undermine the RPS. HB 487 (Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell) would allow hydroelectric dams, even those that were built 100 years ago, to count toward the requirement of the law that 15% of a utility’s electricity supply must come from eligible renewable energy facilities. 100-year-old hydro dams were specifically excluded from the original law because the goal was to encourage new renewable energy and economic development. HB 487 does the exact opposite. MEIC opposes this bill. NWE supported it. The bill passed the House on a 64 to 32 vote, and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate energy committee.

Qualifying Facilities (QFs)

Another main driver of new renewable energy in Montana over the last 10 years has been a federal law called the “Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act” (PURPA). If a facility qualifies under the law it’s called a Qualifying Facility (QF). The contract lengths for these projects has been of great debate at the legislature and the PSC. In fact, MEIC has challenged a PSC decision in court partly because of an improper reduction in the contract lengths for QFs to 15 years. Before the PSC reduced it the contract length was 25 years, which is standard in the utility world. HB 22 (Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston) would set the contract length at no less than 20 years. This is seen as a compromise between the 15 and 25 year periods and still represents a fairly standard length of time for power plant contracts. Longer contracts help these facilities secure the financing they need to be built and operated. MEIC supports this bill. NWE opposed it. The bill passed the House on a 94 to 2 vote, and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate energy committee.

Electric Vehicles

Key to the adoption of electric vehicles is an effective network of charging stations that can refuel the cars’ battery. Today, there are times when these charging stations, where they exist, become physically blocked by non-electric vehicles, either on accident or with purpose. SB 173 (Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena) would require that a sign be placed at each electric vehicle charging spot indicating it is designed for electric vehicle charging, and allowing for a $25 penalty, and potential towing, if a non-electric vehicle parks there. MEIC supports this bill. The bill is awaiting final action in the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee.

Smart Meters

To help keep utility bills down and to encourage higher levels of renewable energy on the electricity grid, advanced metering infrastructure (or smart meters) should be deployed by utilities. The information generated by these wireless, electronic meters help both the utility and consumers better understand and improve the efficiency of their energy use. HB 267 (Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings) would help eliminate barriers to the adoption of smart meters by allowing utility customer to opt-out of using that type of meter if they chose to do so. It also would establish a data privacy standard for information generated by the meters. MEIC supports this bill. The bill passed the House on a vote of 98 to 1, and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate energy committee.

Reclamation Bonding Required only for Solar Facilities

Sen. Tom Richmond (R-Billings), the greatest friend the fossil fuel industry has in the legislature, has introduced SB 93. Senator Richmond said, when voting on the bill, “…I think the State does have an interest in seeing commercial facilities properly decommissioned and reclaimed.” So, entirely illogically, to solve the problem the bill only requires solar facilities to have reclamation bonds. The bill does not require fossil-fuel plants burning coal or gas to post such bonds. Clearly, if the true intention was to see commercial facilities properly decommissioned, then this bill would include fossil-fuel facilities. Last legislative session there was a bill that only targeted wind facilities for bonding. MEIC supported that bill, but noted that we wanted to see the same requirements for fossil-fuel plants. This session’s bill only targets solar facilities. While MEIC agrees that all facility sites need to be reclaimed, we will oppose this bill until it includes fossil-fuel plants as well. The bill passed the Senate on a 33 to 15 vote, and is now awaiting a hearing in the House energy committee.

Attack on Rooftop Solar

While the rooftop solar policy called “net metering” is not under attack by the Legislature this session, there are still efforts to hinder the development of rooftop solar. HB 144 (Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston) would eliminate a State tax credit that helps Montanans financially if they want to go solar. It is another sad attack on Montana’s homegrown rooftop solar industry and the ability of utility customers to control their own energy use. MEIC opposes this bill. The bill had a hearing in the House, and is awaiting a vote in the Taxation Committee.

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