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Net Metering at the Legislature: Half-time Report

Over the past few weeks, MREA’s priority legislation to make renewable energy more accessible and affordable to Montana consumers has been killed by the Montana Legislature. Hundreds of Montana businesses and individuals contacted their legislators, urging them to vote for MREA’s priority bills, but the outpouring of support wasn’t enough to overcome the powerful influence of utility lobbyists in Helena.

HB 192, sponsored by Rep. Art Wittich (R-Bozeman), was heard on January 19th, with an impressive turnout of fifteen businesses, consumers and organizations lining up in support of raising the cap from 50 kilowatts, an amount decided in 1999 when net metering legislation was first passed in Montana, to 1 megawatt. As John Palm from Bozeman Green Build pointed out, the low cap limits opportunities for large energy users to control their energy costs with renewable energy. Palm also pointed out that the cap complicates projects for installers by forcing any system over 50 kilowatts to be broken into two systems. Brad Van Wert from Harvest Solar in Gallatin Valley testified that his company experienced 300% growth in the last year but the cap restriction “has not changed to reflect the rapidly growing solar industry and the opportunity for jobs and economic stimulus right here in Montana”.

Leading the opposition to HB 192, John Fitzpatrick from NorthWestern Energy called the bill “the ratepayer’s subsidized energy for big box stores act of 2015.” Fitzpatrick insisted that raising the cap will benefit only the wealthy and big box stores and shift utility costs onto non net-metered customers. Montana Dakota Utilities, the Montana Electric Cooperative Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers also opposed the bill. Despite vigorous testimony from MREA and others pointing out the many benefits of net metering systems to the grid, as well as the authority of the Public Service Commission (PSC) to correct any cost shift if it exists, HB 192 died in the House energy committee on a vote of 5-10.

HB 188, sponsored by Rep. Art Wittich (R-Bozeman), would have allowed net metering customers to roll over their credits for a total of 24 months, rather than the current 12 months. The extension would give customers more flexibility to manage inter-annual weather and energy usage variability. The bill died in the House energy committee on a vote of 7-8.

SB 134, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls), was heard on January 20th, with another strong turnout of eighteen supporters urging passage of Aggregate Net Metering. The bill would have allowed for the owner of multiple electric meters on the same or adjacent properties to offset the energy usage from all of those meters with one renewable energy system. Among the supporters, Jack Isbell from Solar Montana in Helena explained that aggregate net metering “allows for locations to be picked based on their solar merit, versus close proximity…to the meter that draws the most electricity.” Rancher Art Hayes Jr. explained how he would benefit from aggregate net metering. Hayes has thirteen separate meters on his ranch and an astronomical electric bill during irrigation season. If he could aggregate the load of all those meters under one renewable energy system, the reduced costs and economy of scale would make a net metering system much more financially viable. SB 134 died on a vote of 3-10 in the Senate energy committee.

SB 182, sponsored by Sen. Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman), was heard on January 27th, with more than twenty proponents testifying in support of Neighborhood Net Metering. The bill would have allowed individuals to invest in a portion of a renewable energy system and receive proportionate credit on their electrical bill. If passed, the bill would have made net metering an option for people without an appropriate site or the financial means for their own renewable energy system. Ben Reed from Windpower West in Billings testified that Neighborhood Net Metering could lower and stabilize the cost of energy, whereas the price of energy from a utility “will not stay level, is unpredictable, and will only increase over time.” Clearly missing the point that this bill would make renewable energy more affordable, Fitzpatrick testified that only rich neighborhoods use net metering. SB 182 died in the Senate energy committee on a vote of 4-9.

On February 18th, Rep. Art Wittich (R-Bozeman) presented HB 485 as a last attempt at moving a compromise net metering bill forward. HB 485 would have allowed for aggregate net metering, raised the cap to 150 kilowatts, and triggered an immediate PSC study of cost shifting. Proponents pointed out that the bill addressed concerns from the previous net metering bills. Ed Gulick from High Plains Architect testified that other states that have undertaken similar studies have found significant net benefits to rate payers, the grid and non-solar customers, and that “we can’t allow our state laws to stifle innovation and hold Montana back.” Following the usual lineup of opponents, the bill was killed by the House energy committee on a vote of 6-9.

HB 489, sponsored by Rep. Randall Pinocci (R-Sun River), to expand existing net metering statutes to the rural electric cooperatives was also heard on the 18th. Jeff Fox from Renewable Northwest testified that every Montanan deserves the right to generate their own energy and be less dependent on a utility, and this bill “gives them those opportunities and respects the cooperative model and the cooperative differences.” Montana Electric Cooperatives Association’s lobbyists, Doug Hardy, testified that each co-op is unique and one statute won’t work for every co-op. HB 489 was tabled on a vote of 5-10.

SB 343, sponsored by Sen. Roger Webb (R-Billings), heard on February 19th, would have rolled back Montana’s net metering law by reducing the reimbursement rate for net-metered customers. The bill was tabled in committee by request of the sponsor.

The one net metering bill that is moving forward at this stage in the session is SJ 12, sponsored by Sen. Pat Connell (R-Hamilton). SJ 12 would require an interim legislative committee to study many aspects of net metering before the 2017 Legislative Session.

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