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Brian Fadie

Brian Fadie MEIC Clean Energy Program Director.

Recently, the state’s largest electric utility, NorthWestern Energy, took to these pages to yet again complain about renewable energy. This time it was about a Montana law that promotes rural economic development through renewable power production.

Previously, NorthWestern has griped about rooftop solar and multiple federal renewable energy policies. At this point, is anyone surprised NorthWestern is once again fighting against renewable energy development?

At issue this time is a 2005 Montana law aptly titled the “Renewable Power Production and Rural Economic Development Act.” The law requires monopoly utilities, such as NorthWestern, to get a certain amount of power from community renewable energy projects. By design, compliance with the law would necessitate multiple projects being built, thereby spreading jobs and tax revenue across rural areas of the state.

NorthWestern has had 13 years to comply with the law, but it has never done so. Instead, per usual, the company has spent considerable time and effort before the Montana Legislature and Public Service Commission fighting the renewable energy law and making excuses for why it can’t support rural economic development. That’s 13 years of lost opportunity for new jobs, local government revenue, and environmental benefits for Montana communities.

Nationally, wind and solar energy jobs are two of the fastest growing occupations in the country. These jobs pay well and are predominantly located in rural counties where land is abundant, helping bolster local economic development and prosperity and generating tax revenue for counties and rural communities.

Here at home, the Montana Department of Commerce reports that wind farms in Toole County have generated $29 million in local and state property taxes while Wheatland County’s wind farms have produced nearly $20 million. Fallon, Meagher, Judith Basin, Teton, Glacier and Cascade counties have also received tax revenue boosts from wind farms. On the solar side, counties like Stillwater, Musselshell and Big Horn saw their first large–scale projects built last year and with that comes increased revenue.

Wind and solar projects produce not just economic benefits, but they also produce environmental benefits. They help cut the amount of pollutants going into our air and water, pollutants that are dangerous to both human health and that contribute to climate change. Renewable energy helps keep Montana’s air and waterways healthy, protecting for future generations the legacy of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation that defines Montana.

These widespread economic and environmental benefits from wind and solar energy are precisely what the Montana Legislature was seeking when it passed this renewable energy law with bipartisan support.

It’s no secret to anyone watching the Montana energy world that NorthWestern badly wants to build a fleet of new and expensive fossil fuel gas plants (and earn a hefty profit charging its customers more to pay for them). If renewable energy projects provide that energy instead, and do so at lower costs, there’s less need for expensive gas plants and ratepayers save money – two outcomes that drive utility executives crazy.

NorthWestern’s crusade against renewable energy needs to end. Its efforts are hurting rural Montana’s ability to increase its tax base and create jobs — and it’s hurting all of our ability to live in a state with clean air and water.

Brian Fadie is Clean Energy Program Director at the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), a membership–based environmental advocacy organization founded in 1973 and based in Helena.