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67th Montana Legislature: Mid-Session Review

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After a relatively slow start to the first few weeks of the 67th Legislative Session, the last few weeks of February were a whirlwind as legislators worked to get bills introduced and heard in committees before the Transmittal Deadline on March 3rd. Other than revenue bills (and a few other exceptions), bills that are not voted out of committee and across to the other chamber before the Transmittal Deadline die and are not allowed to move forward. Discussions on energy issues, in particular, ramped up over the last few weeks. Below we share some of our insights from inside the hallways of the Capitol, where our executive director has been working hard to defend Montana's renewable energy policies.

The biggest story for MREA in the first half of the session was House Bill 359. MREA strongly opposed this anti-rooftop solar bill, which would have effectively destroyed the solar market in Montana. The bill would have reduced the value of credits that rooftop solar customers receive by 50-60% for businesses, and 70% for households and individuals - including all current customers. MREA worked hard to oppose this bill, rallying opposition and publishing an OpEd in local papers around the state. More than 50 individuals were prepared to testify at the hearing against the bill, and more than 1,300 comments were submitted to legislators in opposition, in addition to letters to the editor (here and here). This outpouring of opposition demonstrates how much Montanans value rooftop solar. Moments before the hearing, the sponsor realized a significant flaw in the bill, and had to choose between either trying to fix the bill in the waning days before the Transmittal Deadline, or to withdraw and effectively kill the bill. The sponsor withdrew the bill, which was a big victory for solar! Thank you to MREA's members, supporters, allies, and to all of the Montanans who raised their voice in opposition to this bad bill.

Another priority bill for MREA was House Bill 17, which we supported. This would have allowed the state's alternative energy tax credit to be fully refundable. This tax credit is used by hundreds of Montanans every year to help pay for home-grown solar, wind, and micro-hydro systems on their property. Allowing a tax credit to be fully refundable means if a Montanan does not have enough tax liability to claim the credit in full they can get the ‘balance’ back to them through their tax refund. This would have particularly helped lower- and moderate-income and retired individuals, making solar and wind more accessible to more Montanans. Unfortunately, this bill died in the House Tax Committee early in the session.

Most of the energy bills this session have focused on large-scale energy development issues. Some of the other key energy policies that MREA has been working on include:

House Bill 576, Repeals the Renewable Portfolio Standard (MREA Opposed). Montana's Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires our largest utilities to procure 15% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015. NorthWestern Energy has been compliant with the RPS for years, and the renewable energy credits that they have already compiled will allow them to continue to comply for years to come. This means the RPS is no longer achieving it purpose of encouraging new renewable energy development. A better option than repealing it would be to update and increase the RPS to continue to drive growth in renewables for Montana. This bill passed the House and is heading to the Senate.

Senate Bill 197, Improving Community Renewable Energy Projects requirements (MREA supported). "CREPs" have been discussed at the legislature before. Each year, NWE must procure a certain amount of renewable energy from newly developed CREP projects. These are project less than 25 MW in size that must be at least partially owned by Montanas businesses, ensuring benefits to local Montanans. SB197 makes the local ownership requirement more streamlined, which would make developing these projects easier. This was tabled in the Senate Energy Committee.

Senate Joint Resolution 12, Requiring an interim study on Electric Vehicles (MREA supported). Electric vehicles are a growing market, and when paired with renewables can provide clean and efficient transportation. SJ12 would have called for an interim study on electric vehicles to address the many interesting and complex issues that EV growth will bring to our communities and grid. MREA recently completed an 18 month study of solar-powered transportation in partnership with Montana's Energy Office, three Montana communities, and the National Renewable Energy Lab, which we were hoping to use to inform this interim study. This bill was tabled in the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee.

Taxation of renewable energy projects has also been a big topic this session. Some bills seemed punitive and would discourage or flatly kill development. Others seemed like a prudent attempt to increase the positive impact that renewable energy projects are already having on Montana county and state revenue. Elected officials must be careful that any changes to taxation do not price development out of the market, inadvertently killing projects and reducing the financial benefits for Montanans to $0.

The Legislature is back in session on March 8th. Stay tuned for more updates and insights from the hallways.


Get involved with MREA's citizen advocacy:

Action Alerts. Keep an eye on your email this session for our action alerts. Check regularly to make sure they're not going to your 'spam' folder. Plus, help us reach more Montanans by forwarding our email action alerts to your friends and colleagues during the Session. You can sign up for our action alerts here.

Donate to support our efforts. MREA is a small organization, and lobbying at the Capitol is expensive. MREA is often working against large lobbyist groups that can spend thousands of dollars and hire teams of lobbyists. Every donation to MREA allows us to work that much harder to defend Montana's renewable energy policies. Donate here.

Join MREA as a member. The larger our voice, the louder we speak (HB359 is a great example of the success this can lead to!). We work directly with our members to engage them in our lobbying and citizen advocacy efforts. Make sure your membership is up to date, and if you're not yet a member join our community to get the insider scoop!