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Solar Montana

A garage with rooftop solar panels to generate electricity for a nearby house is seen in Billings earlier this year. Renewable energy activists want Montana regulators to reject a proposed charge for homeowners who generate surplus electricity from their own solar panels.

Montana utility regulators have rejected NorthWestern Energy's plans to increase rates on customers who net meter solar power.

Saying that NorthWestern hadn’t presented enough information to justify the charge, members of the Public Service Commission rejected the plan, leaving it up to the utility to gather more data and try again.

“In my mind, to pick a phrase from our attorneys, it is not ripe. It is not a complete set of data that we can make a decision that’s going to impact so many people,” said Commissioner Bob Lake, a Republican from Hamilton.

The commission voted unanimously to reject the request by NorthWestern, a South Dakota-based company that is Montana’s largest monopoly utility. NorthWestern has roughly 2,100 Montana customers who net meter, a rather small percentage of the 370,000 Montana electric customer base.

Those net metering customers were extremely vocal during the utility’s yearlong case to increase customer rates. They argued the utility was punishing customers who generate power and also that it was killing the rooftop solar industry.

Commissioners voted Oct. 30 to increase NorthWestern rates $6.5 million across several classes, but left the net metering issue unresolved until Monday.

Commissioner Tony O’Donnell, a Republican from Billings, gave NorthWestern Energy two options to resolve the net metering issue: either bring sufficient information forward to take up the bill increase again soon, or allow rates to stay the same until energy from customers who net meter makes up 5% of the utility’s portfolio. That later option would take years to attain.

NorthWestern had argued that net metering customers bought such small amounts of electricity that the burden of paying for the utility’s infrastructure was being unfairly shouldered by customers who didn’t net meter. The utility proposed charging net metering customers a higher rate every month for their first hour of purchased electricity, after which the rate would decline. The utility also said it was paying too much for surplus solar power from customers who net meter.

Customers with rooftop solar who buy very little power from NorthWestern said the new proposed charge, placed on new net meterers, would result in bills higher than what a customer would pay if they didn’t net meter at all. Harold Hoem of Missoula told commissioners what NorthWestern wanted to charge was going to kill homeowner interest in solar energy.

“I’ve seen people extremely interested in investing in solar panels for various reasons, even retired people, because of success other people have had in doing it,” Hoem said.

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In other issues resolved Monday, the PSC added the six-turbine Two Dot wind farm to NorthWestern’s rate base, meaning customers will now, over time, pay for utility’s $18.5 million purchase of the wind farm as well as maintenance and operations costs.

The commission stayed out of a request by the U.S. Air Force at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls. The Air Force has the opportunity to buy power from the federal Western Area Power Administration at a cheaper rate than what it pays for NorthWestern power. The commission was uncertain how to reconcile state law protecting NorthWestern as a monopoly from competition and federal law allowing WAPA to sell power to the Air Force base. It asked the parties to work toward a solution.

The commission also took no action on a claim by Leo and Jeanne Barsanti, a Billings couple who said NorthWestern was over charging some areas for street lights. The gist of the argument that in areas where equipment, like light poles, were paid off, the utility was still charging people. PSC staff thought the Barsanti concerns were being dealt with in a different case.

The commission approved a minimum annual expenditure of $3.2 million for the continuation of NorthWestern’s hazard tree removal program. Trees killed by bark beetles were a specific target of the program, commissioners said.

Commissioners also denied a NorthWestern-proposed $150 charge for reconnections of electric service after business hours. It asked NorthWestern to show the need for the charge in a separate case if the utility still wanted the charge.

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