Let’s not get all giddy over the PSC’s solar decision

Yes, some kudos should go to the Montana Public Service Commission for it’s rebuke, by a vote of 5-0, to NorthWestern Energy’s attempt to stick it to owners of rooftop solar systems.

Even more praise should go to those who testified Monday, and throughout the year, on NWE’s plan to penalize solar system owners with higher rates. Your hard work paid off.

NWE also asked to reduce net-metering credits. (Net metering is the energy that rooftop solar systems add to the grid and the owners of those systems receive credits on their electric bills.) Those two efforts to punish rooftop solar customers by NWE would most likely kill the rooftop solar industry in Montana.     

It’s highly unusual when the commissioners rule against our monopoly energy provider. As a matter of fact, the PSC recently granted NWE a $6.5 million rate increase, mostly on the backs of retail customers and particularly irrigators on Montana’s farms and ranches. Big industrial users, like Exxon/Mobile and Walmart, will see a decrease.

Rooftop solar owners aren’t out of the woods yet. The main reason commissioners denied NWE’s request to ding rooftop solar wasn’t out of any love for renewable energy, as the Billings Gazette’s Tom Lutey reports, but a lack of information.

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.

Next up before the PSC is NWE’s 20-year procurement plan. It’s based on developing natural gas power plants while there’s little mention of renewable energy generation or storage systems. Commissioners will be hearing testimony in Helena on December 9. You can submit comments before the January 3, 2020 deadline. (Here’s an example of one template that can be used, provided by Northern Plains Resource Council.)

Then there’s the elephant in the room: Colstrip. The commissioners put off any decisions on Colstrip remediation even though the end of those CO2 belching behemoths is coming sooner rather than later. Again, from the Gazette’s Tom Lutey:

Montana’s Public Service Commission expressed “significant doubt” Monday that the Colstrip Power Plant would burn more a than a few more years and acknowledged risks of $300 million in stranded costs for NorthWestern Energy customers if the utility doesn’t address early closure.

But that acknowledgement was as close as regulators came to requiring NorthWestern to address Colstrip risks as a condition of the utility’s request to increase customer rates by $6.5 million. Monday, the commission tied up loose ends in the rate case, but decided to leave questions about consumers’ big Colstrip risks alone.

Even more worrisome is the makeup of the PSC.

There’s District 1 Commissioner Randy Pinocci addressing misanthropes at Red Pill Expos, whose events’ themes are “a combination of paranoid conspiracy theorists; far-right, anti-democratic libertarians; and alternative health charlatans,” according to the Montana Human Rights Network.

It’s a mix of the anti-vaccination and anti-public education crowd, along with climate change deniers and anti-government speakers, and Commissioner Pinocci. Militiaman Ammon Bundy was one of the keynotes.

The Red Pill name comes from the “Matrix” film series where Neo (Keanu Reeves) has the choice of taking a red pill to reveal the real world or a blue pill to keep him in a state of ignorant illusion. Perhaps these events would be more aptly named “Blue Pill Expos.” 

The Montana Free Press notes that Pinocci urged the Red Pill congregation to run for office and to use slanted, far-right scorecards to advance their cause:

(Pinocci) said he was able to defeat his main primary opponent, then-state representative Rob Cook, by attacking Cook over a poor grade on a Christian-issues scorecard issued by the Montana Family Foundation.

Two others on the PSC, Chairman Brad Johnson and Commissioner Roger Koopman, are at each other’s throats. It’s hard to know which one to root for in this schism.

Johnson withheld extremely important information on Northwestern Energy’s $6.5 million rate increase from the press. Koopman called him out in a Billings Gazette guest column:

The most recent example of our habitually dysfunctional, politically dominated Public Service Commission was our failure to publicly disclose one of our most important votes of the year – the approval of a NWE electric rate increase that affected every NorthWestern customer. The culmination of a year-long process of discovery, hearings, briefings, public comment and thousands of staff hours, the commission approved – without debate – a complex and wide-ranging settlement agreement that established an overall electric rate increase of $6.5 million, with varying impacts on each retail class.

Wow, “habitually dysfunctional, politically dominated Public Service Commission.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

But Koopman’s no prince, either. He did, after all, vote for the very same rate increase, along with the other four commissioners.

Koopman is also a climate change denier and a critic of anyone who would protest current fossil fuel use, like last month’s young climate strikers.

Let’s call it what it is: a climate crisis, as this New York Times article points out:

The Emissions Gap Report found average temperatures are on track to rise by 3.2 degrees Celsius from the baseline average temperature at the start of the industrial age.

According to scientific models, that kind of temperature rise sharply increases the likelihood of extreme weather events, the accelerated melting of glaciers and swelling seas — all endangering the lives of billions of people.

So, what to do? For starters, three of the five PSC seats are open in 2020. And fortunately, the Koopdog, as he was known during his tenure at the state legislature, is termed out. There’s an excellent Democratic candidate running in that district (District 3). District 4’s Bob Lake, a rubber stamp for NWE and the rest of the commission, is also termed out. There are three good candidates on the Democratic side and two horrible ones on the Republican side in that district.

Unfortunately, clueless commissioners Pinocci in Distirct 1 and Chairman Johnson in District 5, aren’t up for election in 2020. District 2 is a tough one: Billings and points east. No Democrat has filed yet but there will be a Republican primary with young Daniel Zolnikov, a Billings legislator, running against incumbent Tony O’Donnell. Zolnikov would most likely be an improvement, along the lines of former Republican PSC Commissioner Travis Kavulla.

Here’s a map of the PSC districts. Please, do your homework, get involved and let’s make the needed changes on this most important commission.    


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About the author

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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  • Thanks for this article, Pete. It’s clear and states compellingly the nature of our situation with the PSC.

    While this decision isn’t paradise, I really do want to credit ALL OF OUR FELLOW MONTANANS who have been working so very hard over the months (and years) to move Montana into the age of renewable fuels even in the face of strong opposition from NWE and completely LACKING the oversight and regulation which Montanans SHOULD BE ABLE TO EXPECT from “their” PSC.

    The struggle continues. Thanks, Montanans, for your dedicated attention to this matter. It must continue.

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