The 66th Montana Legislature was called into session last week and is currently scheduled to run until May 1st. MREA will be there to continually promote and support good renewable energy legislation while defending against attacks on key policies like net metering, renewable energy tax incentives, and more. MREA’s work is always strengthened by our member base, so please engage with our citizen advocacy efforts throughout the session and gain access to our action alerts by becoming a MREA member. As a member, you can also get regular updates on the legislative session and other solar industry news by signing up for our e-newsletter.
There is a lot of uncertainty around the 2019 legislative landscape. Many bills still have generic names, do not have draft text available to read, and/or have not yet been introduced. With that in mind, below is a preview of what we expect to see from Montana’s elected officials in the coming months.
The Qualifying Facilities contract length discussion continues
In 2017, the Montana Public Service Commission set contract lengths at 15 years for “Qualifying Facilities” (QFs). MREA believes that long-term contracts in the 20 to 25-year range for QFs provide the certainty necessary for a developer to move a project forward. The 20 to 25-year contract length is also consistent with other energy supply resources that NorthWestern Energy has purchased. This includes the Spion Kop wind farm (25 year contract length), the David Gates Generating Station (natural gas, 30 year contract length), and Colstrip Unit 4 (coal, 34 year contract length). Independent renewable energy projects should be given the certainty of long-term contracts that are financially reasonable and on par with utility-owned resources if more renewable energy development is to occur within Montana.
During the 2017 legislative session and through the interim session that followed, legislators had several extensive discussions on the contract length issue. The Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee closed this past interim session with a bill draft that would set the contract length at a minimum of 25 years. This is House Bill 22, being carried by Representative Bishop, which MREA supports. However, this is not the only bill addressing QF contract terms, signaling that this may once again be a heavily debated topic this session. Senator Richmond has a bill draft that would set the contract lengths to as low as 10 years, which is unworkable for developers. We will be monitoring all of these to determine which will help and which will harm renewable energy development in Montana.
Utility planning processes
There are a number of bill drafts addressing utility resource planning processes. These bills seek to change how the utility can acquire supply resources (solar, wind, coal, natural gas), how utilities can recover costs, and more. One such bill is House Bill 78, carried by Representative Perry. House Bill 78 came from the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee, and requires that investor owned utilities (like NorthWestern Energy) hold at least two public meetings during their resource supply planning process. This is a very good bill that would increase transparency in the planning process and bolster trust between utilities and their customers. Planning discussions currently happen behind closed doors, with an invite-only advisory committee that the utility appoints. This lack of transparency leaves stakeholders and customers in the dark and unable to share their feedback and input with the utility. All other major utilities in the northwest have planning meetings that are open to the public – NorthWestern’s process is an outlier.
While not creating full transparency in the planning process, House Bill 78 will move things in the right direction.
Already on the defensive
There are already bills being drafted that will attack key renewable energy policies. One such bill is House Bill 144, carried by Representative Redfield, repeals the Alternative Energy Systems tax credit and the Alternative Energy Generation credit. We saw this bill before from Representative Redfield in the 2017 Legislative Session, as well as during the November 2017 special session. MREA is steadfastly opposed to this bill because it repeals important alternative energy tax incentives used by thousands of Montanans. These tax incentives fuel local investment and drive growth for the small businesses that make up Montana’s renewable energy industry. HB 144 provides a disincentive for private investment in renewable energy technologies, damaging the ability for small businesses in this industry to grow.
The net-metering debate moves to the Montana Public Service Commission
As of this writing, there are no bills seeking to change net metering. However, last year NorthWestern Energy (NWE) filed a general electric rate case with the Montana Public Service Commission last year that seeks to significantly harm future net metering customers. This could devastate the solar industry. MREA is participating in the rate case and is fighting vigorously to protect current and future solar customers. Should any bill arise at the legislature attacking net metering MREA will be at the forefront to fight it off, however as of right now there is greater concern about the rate case. Find out more about the rate case and how you can help MREA’s efforts.