Reflections from the Unknown Energy Battleground Tour

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The following is a guest blog post by Caitlin Piserchia, Conservation Fellow with Forward Montana. 

The Montana Public Service Commission, a quasi-judicial regulatory body seemingly tucked away in a drafty building in Helena, has an almost unbearably boring name but a incredibly large influence over Montana’s energy future.

In early October, MREA and Forward Montana partnered on a statewide tour to bring the Public Service Commission and their responsibilities into the public eye. After two weeks on the road as part of the Unknown Energy Battleground Tour, I came away with three major lessons: the Public Service Commission makes incredibly consequential decisions on a regular basis, they are an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to renewable energy development in Montana, and many Montanans don’t know how to influence their decisions.

As the representative from Forward Montana, I traveled with MREA’s executive director Andrew Valainis to all five panels -- in Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls, and Helena. Though the panels and audience were different in each town, the similarities at each event were intriguing. At every event, there were people who cared and were deeply invested in the issues. Solar installers, renewable energy advocates, former commissioners, and current elected officials came to speak on the panels or attend as audience members. In every city, there were Montanans who knew a ton about the PSC, as well as Montanans who had hardly heard of them. What was clear was that except for a handful of folks at each event, most Montanans aren't sure exactly what the PSC is, how they make their decisions, or what kind of leeway commissioners have.

Panelists at the Unknown Energy Battleground Tour in Bozeman
Panelists at the Unknown Energy Battleground Tour in Bozeman.

Three former PSC commissioners participated in the panels. All of them spoke about their time on the PSC with reverence, aware of the power they wielded. One said it was the best job they ever had. Another said they got an education from being a commissioner. If you have any doubts that a regulatory body with a stodgy name like “Public Service Commission” does anything beyond keeping bureaucracy alive, there’s an argument to the contrary. All of the former commissioners felt powerful.

The decisions that commissioners make on a daily basis affect all of us. The PSC arguably has more direct influence over the greenhouse gas emissions in our state than any other regulatory body. The mandate of the PSC is to regulate investor owned utilities to ensure that ratepayers have continued access to utility services that are affordable, reliable, and sustainable for the long-term. The PSC sets rates for rooftop solar customers, they sign off on infrastructure investments (i.e. whether or not utilities invest $1 billion in new natural gas plants or $1 billion in renewables), and they can choose whether or not to include the social cost of carbon in their decision-making. Basically, they can decide whether or not “regulating utilities in the public interest” means helping Montana’s utilities transition to a renewable energy future or not.

So what are the takeaways for a renewable energy advocate? I came into these panels with some ideas, but walked away with many more.

First, commissioners are elected. We have the power to change who’s in the room when important decisions are being made. We can choose to vote out commissioners who aren’t committed to regulating in the public interest, and vote in qualified folks who are. Folks who live in Districts 1 and 5 (Helena, the Flathead, Great Falls, all of Northeastern Montana) have the opportunity to think carefully about who to elect.

Second, there are some big decisions coming down the pike shortly that we can all be involved in. A number of environmental and renewable energy-focused advocacy groups have joined Northwestern Energy’s general rate case, which is expected to play out this year and next. We can support those groups financially and make use of public comment opportunities to show support for rooftop solar and a transition away from coal. On November 20th in Billings, Northwestern Energy is holding a public meeting to present their new draft integrated resource plan. That plan is expected to include a $1 billion investment in new natural gas-fired power plants and little to no investments in renewable energy infrastructure. We can attend that meeting and clarify that Montanans want to see a transition to renewable energy, not a decades-long commitment to new gas plants. We can make public comment on any topic we want at Public Service Commission business meetings every Tuesday (9 AM), which sometimes spurs public roundtable discussions on particular topics. We can call or email the PSC directly. We can attend quarterly Consumer Counsel oversight meetings and express the goals that we – the consumers – want the Consumer Counsel to advocate for.

Third, there’s important work to be done outside the PSC. We need to create a social and political climate where it becomes unacceptable to ignore the environmental impacts that these decisions have on Montana’s energy mix and energy future. At every stop of the Unknown Energy Battleground Tour, there were local organizations working to boost awareness and action on climate change in the public arena and advocate for renewable energy from various angles. We need all of us, and we need all of it. We need strategic rallies, we need focused lobbyists, we need informed members of the media, we need politicians who prioritize timely action, we need every-day Montanans who are committed to holding our elected leaders accountable. We need more voices calling on our decision makers to make our vision for a renewable energy future in Montana a reality.

Across the country we’re seeing utilities play various roles in the transition to renewable energy. The technology is here. Renewables are cost-competitive with other energy sources and battery storage is ready to go. That means utilities are capable – now they just need to be willing. They can be a catalyst or they can be an obstructionist to a more resilient future for Montana. The Public Service Commission has an critical role in making sure that our investor-owned utilities are catalysts, and we - the public - need to ensure commissioners choose that option.