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Net metering study moving forward; ETIC establishes focus areas

Net Metering Cost-Benefit Analysis Update
As a reminder: House Bill 219, passed by the 2017 Legislature and signed by Governor Bullock, directs the Montana Public Service Commission to oversee a cost-benefit analysis conducted by NorthWestern Energy of customer-generators (i.e. utility customers who use grid-tied, net-metered systems). HB219 gives the PSC the ability to set minimum information requirements for the cost-benefit study. For more, read our June 28 Policy Blog post below.

In June, the PSC released draft minimum information requirements for the study, and put them out for public comment. MREA joined a number of other renewable energy advocates in responding to the comments (view the comments here). Overall, the suggested list of benefits and costs was comprehensive, and we provided detailed feedback on each category for the PSC’s consideration. In addition, we made a point to address the importance of respecting an individual’s right to produce their own energy. Net metering specifically addresses energy exports to the grid, and we encouraged the PSC to be wary of reaching ‘behind the meter’ and infringing on an individual’s right to produce and consume energy on-site.

The PSC conducted a robust and transparent information gathering process. On August 9th, they issued a Notice of Commission Action finalizing the minimum benefit and cost categories to be included in the study, with descriptions of each. The PSC agreed with MREA and our colleagues in almost every comment we made.

However, we continue to have some major concerns. The first, is that the utility was given an opportunity to include additional cost categories, potentially biasing the study. In its Notice of Commission Action, the PSC did not discourage the utility from adding cost categories. While the PSC itself denied NWE’s request to include these categories in its list of minimum requirements, it allowed NWE to “include those cost categories if it chooses.”

The second, is that the study now disappears into the utilities hands, with limited ongoing transparency. The PSC directed the utility to use its Energy and Technical Advisory Committee (ETAC) for further guidance on important aspects of the study. However, ETAC meetings are closed to the public and participation is by invite only, with participants chosen by NWE itself. This locks out some potential key stakeholders, such as MREA, which has a large vested interest in the issues being discussed.

The goal of this study is to move the conversation on net-metering forward, beyond the stalemate that is hampering solar-industry growth in Montana. A robust, transparent process is the only method for doing so. We remain concerned that the current process could potentially undermine that goal, casting doubt on the study outcome and adding to the tension between the renewable energy industry and the utility.

What’s next?
MREA will continue to monitor this process as it moves forward. MREA will be working with the PSC and members of the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee (ETIC) to discuss solutions to our concerns. We need your support as we continue working on these keys issues. We will be announcing opportunities to get involved once we know more.

Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee Update
MREA attended the 2017-2018 Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee’s first meeting on July 31, 2017. The Committee addressed a number of administrative items, including electing a Chair and Vice-Chair, and establishing a work plan for the next 18-months. The Committee usually selects a small number of key issues to study, while leaving time for other important duties they are tasked with. Membership is always balanced by party and house. The 2017 ETIC members are as follows:

  • Sen. Mary McNally (D – Billings) – Chair
  • Rep. Derek Skees (R – Kalispell) – Vice Chair
  • Rep. Laurie Bishop (D – Livingston)
  • Rep. Zac Perry (D – Hungry Horse)
  • Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R – Billings)
  • Sen. Tom Richmond (R – Billings)
  • Sen. Scott Sales (R – Bozeman)
  • Sen. Cynthia Wolken (D – Missoula)

The Committee has three main studies it will be focusing on: utility decoupling, renewable energy credits, and natural gas utility customer choice (i.e. natural gas deregulation). These studies will be taking up the bulk of the Committee’s time and the staff’s time during the interim. Importantly, the Committee also allocated time to oversee the PSC’s review of Net Metering (in other words, the cost-benefit analysis process initiated by HB219). While MREA will be monitoring ETIC’s work on their main studies, our primary focus will continue to be the HB219 cost-benefit analysis of net metering. We were encouraged to see ETIC take an interest in the that analysis.

You can view and download the minutes, agenda, and documents on the Montana Legislature webpage.

What’s Next?
As we mentioned above, MREA intends to work with members of ETIC to discuss solutions to the concerns we have about the study and the direction its taking. We will be announcing opportunities to get involved as we know more. Thank you for all you do to support renewable energy in Montana!

Want to hear more about the policy landscape in Montana? Be sure to attend our “Renewable Energy Policy” workshop at the Montana Clean Energy Fair, Sept. 16th in Helena.

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