Power industry, environmentalists behind study of Montana’s renewable-power mandate

2013-01-17T17:15:00Z 2013-01-18T00:11:13Z Power industry, environmentalists behind study of Montana’s renewable-power mandateBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
January 17, 2013 5:15 pm  • 

HELENA — Utility companies and environmental groups on Thursday spoke in favor of a proposed legislative study of Montana’s nearly 8-year-old mandate for utilities to produce renewable power, saying it’s time to evaluate its impacts on industry, consumers and the state.

Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, the sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 6, which calls for the study, said there has been much discussion about the mandate, pro and con, since it began. A legislative study over the next 18 months can help “make a determination, one way or the other” on its effects, he said.

It will “give us a firm, good grasp on where we’ve been and where we’re going,” Olson said.

Olson presented SJR6 to the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee, which took no immediate action. No one opposed the measure, and a dozen people testified for it.

If the Legislature approves SJR6, the study would be conducted through a legislative interim committee and the results presented to the 2015 Legislature — 10 years after the mandate was passed.

The mandate says electric utilities in Montana must get at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources, such as wind power, by 2015 — as long as that power is priced competitively with other sources.

At Thursday’s hearing, utility spokesmen talked about the difficulties their companies have faced in meeting the mandate and said the study should evaluate the cost and effects of compliance.

John Alke, a Helena attorney representing Montana-Dakota Utilities, said the company has had to fight with regulators both in Montana and North Dakota over rate treatment for wind-power plants built to meet the mandate and certification of small, community-based renewable power projects, which are also required by the law.

John Fitzpatrick of NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, said his company now has “so much wind on (our) system that our capacity to integrate additional wind is non-existent,” and that it’s also had problems getting renewable-power credits for some small power projects it has to buy.

Representatives of pro-renewable-power groups said they would welcome the study, because it would produce reliable data on the positive aspects of renewable-power development in Montana.

Kyla Maki of the Montana Environmental Information Center said the renewable-power mandate has helped boost wind-power development in Montana from 2 megawatts in 2005 to 600 megawatts today.

The study should look at the economic and environmental effects of the renewable-power mandate, as well as the impact on utility ratepayers, she said.

“I believe Montana’s renewable energy industry has a positive story to tell,” added Jeff Fox of the Renewable Northwest Project.

The mandate, known as the renewable portfolio standard, was passed by the 2005 Legislature. Olson, then a House member, voted against it.

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