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by Brian Fadie

The Public Service Commission (PSC) has a critical role to play in Montana’s energy future. It has the final say over which power plants get built, which don’t, and how much we pay for them.

As you will read in this issue of Down to Earth (see the article on page XX), NorthWestern Energy (NWE) executives seem to have gone mad with dollar signs in their eyes, trying to load up their customers with massively expensive fossil-fuel power plants. Remember: the more the utility spends, the more profit it makes.

MEIC wants to make sure that the PSC has the authority it needs to protect consumers from massive and unnecessary cost increases. It should be able to scrutinize utility proposals and spending. As one might imagine, utilities hate this.

But some good bills have been introduced.

HB 597 (Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings) would protect consumers by, among other things, increasing the transparency in a utility’s long-term planning and procurement processes. It would also increase the robustness of decision-making at the PSC by adding a “hearings examiner” process prior to the PSC making a decision on major issues. MEIC supports this bill. NWE opposed it. The bill had a hearing in the House energy committee on February 25th and awaits a vote in that committee.

HB 314 (Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman) would clarify that the PSC has the authority to initiate a “rate case” at any time. Rate cases are important because they make sure the utility is only collecting enough of its customers’ money to cover the costs of providing service (plus a profit margin). In other words, the PSC is supposed to make sure utility rates are fair. NWE is currently going through a rate case, although its previous case was 10 years ago. Typically rate cases occur every 3-4 years. MEIC supports this bill. NWE opposed it. This bill passed the House by a 94 to 2 vote, and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate energy committee.

SB 188 (Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula) also attempted to increase transparency in the utility world and protect consumers from solely profit-motivated decisions by utility executives. It required long-term planning meetings to be public and to have competitive bidding processes before adding new power plants. MEIC supported this bill. NWE opposed it. The bill died in the Senate Energy Committee on a party line vote.

Finally, HB 78 (Rep. Zac Perry, D-Hungry Horse) attempts a very basic level of utility reform by requiring at least two public meetings as part of NWE’s long-term resource planning process, which the utility currently keeps closed to the public. MEIC supports this bill. NWE opposed it. The bill passed the House on a 79 to 20 vote, and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate energy committee.

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