Solar advocates filed (Docket No. EL16-117-000) with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on September 20 to contest the state Public Service Commission’s recent decision to suspend the payment of the standard rate to small solar energy developers in Montana – which has stalled development of dozens of solar projects queued for development.
This FERC filing was prompted by the commission’s recent decision to grant a request by NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest utility, to eliminate the standard rate for purchases of solar energy projects. According to Northwestern Energy’s own estimate, the decision immediately impacted approximately 135 megawatts (MW) of solar projects in late-stage development statewide.
The petitioners, the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) and Vote Solar – both represented by Earthjustice – assert that the Montana Public Service Commission violated the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 ( PURPA) by suspending the standard rate for solar qualifying facilities with a nameplate capacity between 100 kilowatts (kW) and 3 megawatts (MW).
“That rate has now been taken off the table when projects are in their late stages,” Brian Fadie, clean energy program director for MEIC, told the local Great Falls Tribune. “It undercuts solar development in Montana at the moment,” he said, as three main developers had 43 projects each moving forward with power purchase agreements at 3 megawatts, “which would have been a huge step forward for Montana.”
PSC spokesperson Eric Sell told the local news outlet that the commission’s decision was temporary until a new rate structure could be determined. Plans were to have a hearing on the rates in January.
Meanwhile, the petitioners had a decidedly different point of view: “Public utility commissions across the country are making decisions today about whether we move toward a clean energy future or continue to rely on dirty coal,” said Earthjustice Attorney Jenny Harbine. “By stalling competitive solar production in Montana, the Montana Commission is killing clean energy jobs and preventing solar energy from entering the competitive market.”
“Northwestern Energy is saying the sky is falling in Montana because several solar developers want to build small scale solar plants and create jobs across the state. All we are asking of FERC is that Montana obey the law and let the sun shine for Montana’s energy consumers,” said Brian Fadie of MEIC.
The solar advocates are asking FERC to enforce federal law and rule on the illegality of the Montana Commission’s decision and to enforce PURPA in Montana and elsewhere.