HELENA — Installers of solar-power systems and small wind projects testified Tuesday for a bill to expand “net metering,” which allows homeowners and businesses to sell back unused electricity from such projects to the utility.
But a spokesman for NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, blasted the plan as subsidy for “the upper-middle class and the wealthy of society,” paid for by other ratepayers.
“These systems are basically playthings for the upper-middle class,” said John Fitzpatrick, NorthWestern’s chief lobbyist. “You don’t see any of these (projects) in a trailer park. …
“Who’s going to pay for it? It’s going to be other customers on the system.”
Senate Bill 247, sponsored by Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, would increase a cap on the size of net-metered projects from 50 kilowatts to 100 kilowatts.
Phillips told the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee that the median cap for net-metering laws across the country is about 660 kilowatts.
Supporters of the bill said increasing the cap to 100 kilowatts would allow more commercial and government buildings to be outfitted with net-metered systems.
Conor Darby, the owner of Solstice Energy Systems in Bozeman, said he’s worked on a few 50-kilowatt systems where investors would have gone bigger if they could have net metered it.
“For a company like mine, that means greater revenues, which enables me to keep people employed,” he said.
Under net metering, a household or business with a solar or wind power system buys power from NorthWestern when the system isn’t producing power. But when the system is producing more power than the owner needs, the power feeds back into the system and the owner gets credit for that power.
Supporters said net-metered systems encourage development of more renewable power, which is good for the state and creates jobs.
Fitzpatrick said between 1,000 and 1,100 of NorthWestern’s 340,000 electric-meter customers have net metering.
The net-metered customer is paid about 10 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity sold back to the utility, but that power is worth only 2.5 cents to 6 cents per kilowatt hour to the company, he said. An average home uses 750 kilowatt hours a month.
The difference is made up by the rest of NorthWestern’s customers, he said
He called net-metering a “nuisance” to the utility and a small-scale subsidy, “but we’d like it to stay that way.”
“If net metering is such a good thing, then why does the bill apply only to NorthWestern Energy?” Fitzpatrick asked. “It doesn’t apply to (electric) co-ops or Montana-Dakota Utilities.”
“If you want your constituents to participate in another experiment in social engineering,” he told senators on the committee, “then you should vote for this bill.”
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.