Montana lawsuit hopes to halt cuts to the rates paid to IPPs

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The solar industry in Montana is not taking a late-November decision by the Montana Public Service Commission (MPSC) to slash the rates the state’s utilities must pay independent power producers (IPP).

Saying Montanans deserve the lowest-cost form of energy available – which the petitioners maintain would be solar were it not for the cuts – a coalition of solar industry participants filed papers asking a state district court to halt implementation of the MPSC’s November 24 decision, in which NorthWestern Energy’s request to reduce the rates it pays IPPs drastically was approved.

Among the groups involved in the lawsuit are Vote Solar, the Montana Environmental Information Center, and Cypress Creek Renewables, all of whom have sparred with MPSC before over various issues surrounding solar development in the state.

The complainants argue that prior to the May filing by NorthWestern, dozens of solar projects were scheduled for development across the state, all of which have been halted until a final decision had been handed down concerning the rates the utility would pay the IPPs (like Cypress Creek) that were developing these projects.

The lawsuit states:

If the Commission’s order, which slashes contract rates and lengths for solar power purchases, is allowed to stand, it is unlikely that Montana will see any solar energy development for the foreseeable future. As a result, the state will lose hundreds of millions of dollars of economic investment, hundreds of construction jobs, affordable clean electricity, and significant tax revenues for local governments.

Alleging the MPSC ignored federal and state laws designed to encourage affordable development of renewable energy production – like the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA) – in an illegal attempt to maintain NorthWestern’s monopoly position concerning electricity production in the state, the commission severely reduced contract lengths and compensation rates for IPP-produced solar energy projects.

“Under long-standing federal law, Montanans are entitled the lowest-cost form of energy, and today that means solar power,”  said Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar. “Now that solar is cost-competitive, fossil fuel interests in Montana and across the country are attempting to change the rules of the game. Fair treatment for solar opportunity will benefit Montana’s families, economy, and environment.”

For the past two years, the small-scale solar industry in Montana has been fighting tooth-and-nail on several fronts to protect it from what it sees as NorthWestern’s attempts to snuff it out before it has had a real chance to grow and flourish. In April, the governor had to intervene to maintain net metering, and the longstanding fight over the proper enforcement of PURPA has dragged on in various venues since September 2016.

Given the entrenched interests and the seeming hostility to the solar industry exhibited by the MPSC, the fight shows no signs of slowing down.