Victory! Montana-Dakota Utilities drops contested solar fee

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HELENA—Homeowners in eastern Montana will no longer face discriminatory fees if they choose to install solar after a Montana utility withdrew its plans earlier this week to levy an extra charge on customers with rooftop solar arrays or small wind generators. Montana-Dakota Utilities (MDU), which serves approximately 25,000 electric customers in eastern Montana, filed a proposal at the Montana Public Service Commission in July to raise rates 21 percent for all customers. The rate case had included an additional fee, called a demand charge, for residential solar customers. In a settlement filed on Thursday, MDU withdrew the charge.

“The people won here today,” said Jean and Floyd Dahlman, Rosebud County ranchers and long-time MDU customers. “This settlement proves that MDU’s proposed fee on customers who generate their own power was, in fact, unjustified and unnecessary. Individuals have the right to invest in small-scale wind or solar on their property without needless barriers.”

MDU agreed to drop the solar charge in a settlement with The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), a national group that planned to file testimony at the commission questioning MDU’s proposal. TASC spokesperson Sarah Wolfe commented, “Demand charges like what MDU proposed eliminate customers’ ability to go solar. MDU’s attempt to stop solar competition through this charge was unsupported by any evidence. Just last month we saw a solar charge overturned by the Wisconsin courts due to lack of evidence.”

The proposal by MDU grew a notably high number of public comments from people who were concerned that the fee would make investing in solar more costly. Commission staff received 115 comments by email opposing the charge and at a public hearing in Miles City in September, eight people testified against the charge. No public comments supporting the solar fee were submitted to the Commission.

The Dahlmans were among those who spoke out against the fee. “We’ve been seriously considering an investment in rooftop solar but MDU’s charge would have made that investment impossible.”

Ben Reed is an energy and economics consultant, and the owner of Winpower West in Billings, a business that sells solar arrays and small wind generators. He saw the fee as discriminatory and a threat to businesses like his. Reed pointed out that to-date, MDU only has four customers with on-site renewable energy systems.

“MDU’s proposal would have shut down solar businesses in Eastern Montana before they even had a chance to set up shop,” said Reed. “We shouldn’t let a utility drive away good paying jobs and economic opportunity. Also, a utility should not be allowed to have influence over energy choice by directly targeting renewable energy systems with baseless fees or other charges.”

Ben Brouwer with the Montana Renewable Energy Association, an organization that represents solar businesses and consumers, says that MDU’s charge would have set a bad precedent for other utilities in Montana.

“Private investment in rooftop solar is playing an important role in diversifying our state’s energy supply and economy,” said Brouwer. “The outcry of public opposition and the ultimate failure of MDU’s solar charge should make other utilities think twice before they try to limit the energy choices of their customers.”

More information:
Billings Gazette coverage of the MDU solar fee
Text of the settlement