An attempt to drastically cut the benefits of net metering was withdrawn Friday as advocates of rooftop solar power lined up to protest.
Billings Republican Larry Brewster told the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee that some information in his bill was inaccurate and they didn’t want to go through with the hearing.
There were 49 people waiting to testify against the bill online and a few dozen more waiting outside the hearing. It was only 3:40 p.m., but committee chairman, Derek Skees, a Kalispell Republican, had ordered the committee sandwiches for dinner. The night was going to be long with Brewster’s House Bill 359 taking up a majority of the committee’s time.
Few energy issues drive public turnout like solar net metering, in which homeowners with solar panels earn a credit for selling surplus power back to the state’s largest monopoly utility, NorthWestern Energy.
“I just want to apologize to all the people who came to testify, but I would rather have the facts straight, and solutions, and honest, straight forward information before I move forward,” Brewster told the committee, of which he’s also a member.
Skees said it was unlikely the bill could be resuscitated in the week ahead as the Legislature works through multiple bills as it approaches transmittal deadline, the legislative session’s midpoint at which all non-revenue bills must pass to the opposite chamber or expire in process.
After the meeting, Andrew Valainis, Montana Renewable Energy Association, said concern about existing NorthWestern customers with solar panels not being shielded from the bill’s consequences is what led to the hearing being called off.
Brewster was proposing a significant cut to what NorthWestern Energy credits people who net meter surplus solar power back to the utility. Montana Renewable Energy Association estimated the reduction was 70%. That credit is important to people who net meter because over time it offsets the cost of installing a rooftop solar system.
NorthWestern has objected to the size of the credit it has to pay the customers, arguing that the power is overpriced, which is something regulators disagreed with in 2019 as the utility sought to charge higher electricity rates to customers who net metered. In that case, net metering customers argued that the demand charge sought by NorthWestern would have made it cheaper to skip net metering altogether.
Valainis said cutting the credit 70% would have made it uneconomical to install rooftop solar because cost recovery would have taken years longer. The blow to the state’s solar contractors would have been significant.
MREA estimates that 3,000 homeowners, businesses, and local governments participate in net metering, either with solar panels or wind turbines.