HELENA — As part of an ongoing case on whether to approve a utility’s decision to buy a new wind-power project, the state Public Service Commission on Thursday voted to withhold from the public the price and cost information on two wind-power projects that weren’t chosen.
The PSC, which regulates utilities in Montana, voted 3-2 to grant a request from developers of the two other projects to keep their pricing information and offers secret while the PSC reviews NorthWestern’s decision to buy a competing project.
The Gazette State Bureau and The Associated Press had objected to the secrecy request, saying the information is not a “trade secret” and should be divulged.
All three Republican members of the PSC — Bill Gallagher of Helena, Travis Kavulla of Great Falls and Brad Molnar of Laurel — voted to keep the information from the public. Democratic commissioners Gail Gutsche of Missoula and John Vincent of Gallatin Gateway voted against the request.
“My gut feeling is that this information is something that should be public ... and should be made public, so that the public can be informed,” Vincent said.
NorthWestern Energy, the state’s dominant electric utility, wants to buy a proposed 40-megawatt wind farm near Geyser, known as the Spion Kop wind project. Compass Wind of Denver is the developer.
The utility has asked the PSC to approve the purchase and allow NorthWestern to charge electric ratepayers for its development cost and the power it would produce, starting in 2012.
NorthWestern considered buying projects from two other developers, Invenergy Wind, which already operates the 135-megawatt Judith Gap Wind Project in central Montana, and Sagebrush Energy.
The PSC will spend several months reviewing the NorthWestern request and examine why the company chose Spion Kop and whether it is the best deal for consumers.
The commission and its staff will have access to data on the wind projects that weren’t chosen, but Sagebrush and Invenergy asked in May for a protective order that would prevent the information from becoming public.
The information includes the price and costs of the project, capital costs, wind data, financial models and legal analysis.
The media outlets had asked only that the price and cost information for the Sagebrush and Invenergy projects be revealed.
The PSC Thursday also voted to give the media outlets the chance to examine the documents in the future and possibly ask, again, that certain information be released to the public. However, the media or its attorney couldn’t review the documents initially unless they signed a “nondisclosure agreement.”
Mike Meloy, the Helena attorney representing the media outlets, said they won’t be signing any nondisclosure agreements.
The information should be made public and the PSC erred in protecting it, he said.
“The material that we wanted and which (the PSC) has protected with the order was disclosed by Compass, so it can’t be, as a matter of law, a trade secret,” Meloy said. “It can’t be a trade secret for one company and not for another. The order is just wrong.”
Meloy said it’s important that the public and press see the information so they can evaluate why NorthWestern selected one project and rejected others, which might be less expensive.
While the PSC is allowed to review the information as it decides whether to approve the Spion Kop purchase, the public needs to see the information, too, so it can determine whether the PSC did its job properly, he said.