By Ian Lund
When the Public Service Commission (PSC) published proposed rules on energy resource planning in July, MEIC sprung into action. We helped bring our members, our allies, and the best minds together at a PSC hearing in August to demand that it make changes. The draft rules were hot garbage, but the path forward remains as uncertain as ever.
When an agency writes rules, it first publishes a draft, solicits comments from stakeholders, then integrates those comments into a new draft. Or, at least, that is what is supposed to happen. The three-year struggle over these rules between Montana’s regulated utilities, led by NorthWestern Energy, and just about everyone else culminated in draft rules that may as well have been written by NorthWestern itself.
Every three years, utilities must submit plans detailing how they will provide electricity over a 20-year period. In the past, these were known as Resource Procurement Plans. A bill passed in 2019, HB 597, required the PSC to overhaul the requirements for how utilities must write their plans, now called Integrated Resource Plans (IRPs). An IRP is meant to 1) document and explain a utility’s anticipated energy supply and demand forecasts, 2) identify whether the utility needs to invest in new resources (e.g. power plants or energy efficiency) to replace retiring resources or to meet growing energy consumption, and 3) identify which resources are best suited to meeting that need. Unfortunately, NorthWestern Energy has historically used this process in bad faith. Instead of rigorously evaluating all viable energy resources – including renewables and storage, energy efficiency, and market purchases – it has used the resource planning process as an opportunity to justify building expensive methane plants or keeping the Colstrip coal plant open.
HB 597 was meant to fix that. It outlined a better process to allow public and PSC oversight over utility supply and supply-and-demand projections, as well as model optimal, least-cost investment paths to maintain reliable service. Additionally, it required that any time a utility sought approval from the Commission to invest in significant new energy resources, it would have to conduct a “competitive solicitation process.” Under this regime, a utility can’t just decide to build a gas plant, it would have to first identify how much energy it needs, then issue a request for proposals (RFP) that any energy supplier could respond to (including the utility). The PSC would guide the utility through this process, and the public would have the ability to comment on the RFP and the scoring criteria for bids. In theory, competitive solicitation would result in a more thorough evaluation of new resource acquisitions.
For some reason, competitive solicitation was gutted in the July draft of the rules. In fact, there were many examples of the rules falling short of the legislative intent. For instance, the statute aims to give alternative resources such as energy efficiency a fair shake, stating plans must contain “an evaluation of the full-range of cost-effective” resources, including efficiency and demand-side management. The draft rules, on the other hand, only say that the utility must include a “wide range of plausibly cost-effective resources,” allowing utilities to pick and choose which resources it wants to model. It sounded to us like NorthWestern wrote itself a loophole to avoid investing in renewables so it could maximize profits from building methane gas plants.
At a public hearing on August 16, only the utilities (NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities) spoke in favor of the proposed rules. The long line of opponents, including the sponsor of HB 597, Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R-Billings), strongly objected to the deference it gives to utilities. In response, PSC staffers presented an updated version of the proposed rules to the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee on September 7. In their explanation of the revisions, they said “revisions to the proposed rules are appropriate to fully implement state policy.” Staff’s newest version brought back competitive solicitation and included key transparency and planning diligence provisions.
On September 13, the PSC voted 3-2 against approving the staff’s proposed version of the rules, and instead voted to postpone the rulemaking until January. The majority cited the utilities’ discomfort with the latest version of the rules as their primary reason for not approving.
MEIC will continue pushing the PSC to stand up to the utilities they are supposed to regulate. Stay tuned.
This article was published in the September 2022 issue of Down To Earth.