Montana utility wants gas units; Sierra Club suspects biased modeling


Northwestern Energy, which serves most Montana residents, has submitted a resource plan that would spend “nearly a billion dollars on gas plants,” says the Sierra Club in a press release.

Yet when NorthWestern ran the PowerSimm utility model to develop its plan, “it appears that NorthWestern may have used inputs and assumptions that favor fracked gas resources,” says the Sierra Club in a legal motion to the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC).

NorthWestern owns “subsidiary gas pipeline companies that could profit from its decision to choose gas plants over cleaner, more affordable options,” says the group’s press release, citing a utility filing listing the utility’s subsidiaries.

Moreover, NorthWestern Energy’s planned procurement process could fail to secure competitive clean energy bids, says the Sierra Club’s motion, “as clean energy companies will not put time and effort into drafting a bid…if they believe the model is stacked against them.”


Echoing Montana PSC’s own concern

While the Montana PSC has “some access to the PowerSimm modeling in this docket,” the Sierra Club said in its motion that:

Sierra Club and other interested stakeholders should also be granted access to the model, or at a minimum, the full set of modeling inputs and assumptions … that NorthWestern used for portfolio modeling for its 2019 plan.”

To help make its case, the Sierra Club’s motion quoted the PSC’s own order on NorthWestern’s 2017 resource plan, which stated: “a model that is systematically unavailable to anyone other than NorthWestern creates an information asymmetry that undercuts the legitimacy of NorthWestern’s resource-planning exercise.”  PSC rules also “require NorthWestern to give qualifying facilities access to PowerSimm in Montana’s PURPA dockets at no cost to the qualifying facilities,” says the motion.


Being like Idaho, Wyoming

Neighboring Idaho Power, and PacifiCorp in Wyoming, are “finding that wind, solar, and battery and pumped hydro storage are cheaper than gas plants,” the Sierra Club’s motion says.

In New Mexico, “intervenors have access to all PowerSimm inputs” in the PNM utility’s proceeding to replace the San Juan Generating Station, says the Sierra Club’s motion.  New Mexico’s regulators “approved PNM’s modeling proposal that requires PNM to either: (1) conduct two model runs in PowerSimm requested by each intervenor; or (2) allow intervenors to have access to PowerSimm (at PNM’s cost) to do alternative model runs.”

And in Oregon’s regulatory dockets for integrated resource plans, “all utility modeling files are available, and prior rate cases have included access to utility modeling online,” says the motion.

Other jurisdictions that require some version of transparent utility modeling include California, Minnesota and Puerto Rico, as pv magazine has reported.

The Montana PSC plans to hold public hearings on NorthWest Energy’s resource plan in Helena, Montana on December 9.  The Sierra Club has asked the PSC to extend the deadline for comments on the plan until January 25, 2020.  Nine citizens’ groups in Montana have signed a letter to the PSC, organized by the Montana Environmental Information Center, likewise requesting a 60-day extension in the comment period, and requesting additional public hearings at other locations encompassed by the plan.


Legal notice

Because Montana’s Public Service Commission “has not established this docket as a contested case proceeding,” says the Sierra Club’s motion, the Sierra Club is not empowered to request NorthWestern Energy’s modeling inputs and assumptions through the legal process of discovery.  The Sierra Club is not requesting a full contested case proceeding, but “requests an order from the Commission granting access to NorthWestern’s modeling.”

Earthjustice filed the Sierra Club’s motion with the Montana PSC.  The motion is available under docket number 2019.08.052 on the PSC’s website.

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