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Guest opinion: NorthWestern Energy hijacks solar-energy bill

Guest opinion: NorthWestern Energy hijacks solar-energy bill

Rooftop Solar

A garage with rooftop solar panels to generate electricity for a nearby house is seen in Billings in 2019. 

Northwestern Energy is continuing its pattern of attacking rooftop solar customers and the businesses installing these systems. Their recent hijacking of a rooftop solar bill is yet another attempt to implement its will over the Legislature and the Montana Public Service Commission.

In its original form, House Bill 448 would have helped small businesses, schools, and libraries to install larger rooftop solar systems. The concept was simple: Larger energy users need a larger solar system in order to meet their energy goals. The current 50 kW limit — adopted in 1999 — simply wasn’t cutting it. The bill was smoothly and quietly making its way through the process, with large bipartisan support in the House and positive momentum heading to the Senate. Then the utility stepped in.

The bill was amended three different times by the Senate Energy Committee, changing its intent and adding anti-solar wish list items. One of the amendments will tie the PSC’s hands and force the Commission to change rates for rooftop solar customers. The true impact will be to force the Commission into discriminatory treatment of solar owners. Just a short time ago, the PSC unanimously rejected a punitive proposal by Northwestern to change rates for rooftop solar customers. This new amendment is the utility’s way of ensuring it gets a different outcome.

Another of the anti-solar amendments directly steals jobs away from solar professionals. The purpose of the original bill was to create jobs in Montana’s solar industry. As amended, it now takes operational and maintenance tasks and forces the solar owner to hire someone who didn’t install the system and may not even have training on solar installation and equipment. The bill also forces all rooftop solar customers to hire a full-time, onsite electrician whose sole purpose is to call the utility during an outage to let them know that the system is disconnected. In other words, the government would be forcing households, churches, libraries, and farmers and ranchers to hire a personal electrician to stand-by all hours of the day to call dispatch if their power goes out.

Montana’s solar industry is a burgeoning, small business industry full of experienced solar professionals. Instead of including these professionals in conversations about questions or concerns, they were left out of the discussion. This is just another example of the anti-solar, "my way or the highway" mentality of our monopoly utility.

House Bill 448 would have saved Montanans money and created jobs in Montana’s solar industry. Instead, it will make it more difficult to save money with solar, take jobs away from solar professionals, and allow Northwestern to put its grip around the Public Service Commission and Legislature.

Contact your Senator and ask them to vote no on House Bill 448.

Andrew Valainis is the executive director of the Montana Renewable Energy Association. MREA is a non-profit organization that works to educate and advocate for renewable energy across Montana.


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