The wind, the sun and the PSC

The metropolis of Greycliff, between Big Timber and Columbus, and home to Prairie Dog Town, may not get its wind farm.

The Montana Public Service Commission voted 4-1 to set the rate at $45.49 per megawatt hour. That’s the amount the wind farm can charge Northwestern Energy for the electricity the turbines produce. Problem is, Greycliff needs to charge $53.39 to be profitable, reports the Billings Gazette. Northwestern wanted to pay just $35.65.

I found this nifty, although a bit dated, PSC chart on what Northwestern pays for its various energy sources per megawatt hour: Colstrip Unit 4 – $62.92, Judith Gap wind farm – $47.15, Spion Kop wind farm – $53.15 and PPL hydro – $53.14 (Northwestern has since purchased PPL’s Montana dams and is getting around $60.00 per MWh).

Now I realize that wind (and solar) are intermittent and may have a different value than your “base load” suppliers like coal, natural gas and hydro, but when the wind’s a blowing and the sun’s a shining, renewables seem to be a pretty good deal.

And since I’ve mentioned solar, there’s this, from the story:

Renewable energy projects are on a two-month losing streak with the Montana Public Service Commission. In June, Montana’s Public Service Commission pulled the plug on guaranteed rates for small solar projects at the request of NorthWestern Energy.

It should be noted that Northwestern doesn’t balk at passing along to consumers rates in the $50-$60 MWh range for the electricity generators it owns, like Colstrip, Spion Kop or its dams.

When one factors in all the problems that Colstrip is facing, you’d think Northwestern would embrace other forms of electricity generation. And did I mention that coal-fired plants are the largest contributor to climate change? I’m not sure what price you can put on the health of the planet.

The 4-1 vote was interesting. Had it been Commissioner Travis Kavulla who dissented, it would have really bolstered my case since he seems to be the most reasonable member of the PSC. It was Commissioner Kirk Bushman, though (who just lost his race in the District 2 Republican primary election). Some of the sitting commissioners sided with Bushman’s opponent. Sour grapes? I’m not sure why he voted the way he did because the explanation for his ‘no’ vote is difficult to fathom. Did Bushman think the $45.49 MWh was too high? He mentions “the cost of carbon” being figured into the rate, like that’s a bad thing. I’m linking here to the PSC’s press release which contains comments from four of the commissioners.

Commissioner Roger Koopman comes down hard on PURPA, the federal Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, a law which requires utilities like Northwestern to purchase power from independent renewable generators less than 80-megawatts in size. From Koopman:

Unfortunately … the Commission is faced with trying to make sense out of federal policies that make no sense. The best the Commission can do with unworkable law is try to strike a fair balance with the best information we currently have available, thereby providing as much consistency and predictability as possible to the renewable energy marketplace.

Other states seem to deal with the PURPA regulations reasonably well, and their utility rates aren’t any higher than ours. Now I’m no energy expert and encourage comments from those in the field, but I’m discouraged by this trend:

No wind project has been built in the past 10 years at the price set by the PSC, said Ryno Stinchfield, a Greycliff Wind developer.


If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • Sadly the Republican MT PSC will always put the profits of corporations ahead of anything good for the people of Montana or our country…’s what Godless Corporatists do.
    Abraham Lincoln warned us about what would happen when the Roger Koopmans of the world get their way, they in fact will destroy our Democracy……”Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

  • Three out of our five current PSC commissioners have taken funding from NWE’s management PAC in previous elections (and both my opponents for PSC District 3 this November).

    If you want to see change, please learn more about my qualifications and support my campaign because together we can make it happen.

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Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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