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Tom Woods: 2020 General Election Q&A

Tom Woods is the 2020 Democratic candidate for public service commissioner region 3.
Tom Woods is the 2020 Democratic candidate for public service commissioner region 3.

Montana Public Radio is gathering information on all statewide general election candidates to publish as a resource for our audience. We asked all the statewide candidates to respond to the following questions via email, limiting their answers to 150 words per question. These are their unedited responses.

Tom Woods is the 2020 Democratic candidate for public service commissioner region 3.

What makes you the best candidate to represent your region on the Public Service Commission and how do you stand out from your opponent(s)?

As a 4-term legislator, I have fought monopolies every step of the way and authored legislation that promotes renewable energy and protects Montana families and businesses from skyrocketing power (and medical bills).In bringing over a dozen bills that sought to make energy pricing more fair, I’ve I’ve walked the walk.

On the other hand, my opponent is a lobbyist who worked for banks and the infamous dark money group, American Tradition Partnership. There is strong evidence that he does not live in the district, as required by law.

What experience do you have in understanding the policy and regulation of electric, natural gas, water, wastewater and telecommunication industries? 

Being a legislator is great training for delving into complex issues. In four terms I have authored many, many bills that dealt with energy regulation. I know where the bodies are buried. I have heard many, many bills that deal with water, natural gas and telecommunications. 

What would be your top three goals as a public service commissioner and how would you accomplish them?

I want rates that are based on fairness, not influence.

I want farmers and ranchers and the tribes to be able to stay on their land by allowing them to harvest the sun and the wind.

I want to restore stability and transparency to an agency that is currently lacking both of those qualities. I will accomplish these goals by approaching the job with the strong work ethic and commitment to public service that I’ve displayed as a legislator.

What authorities of a public service commissioner do you believe should be used more or less than previous commissioners? Please provide specific examples. 

The PSC needs to reduce the Return On Equity payment or replace it altogether with a different means of compensating utilities. The Return on Equity payment system drives the company to act the way it does. Here’s how.

Let's imagine that a group of people were forced to give you an annual payment equal to 11.5% of your homes value. We will call those folks the “Ratepayers.” With that arrangement, what kind of house will you go out and buy? You have an incentive to buy or build the most expensive house you could get! The higher the value, the higher the payment you get from the “Ratepayers.”

This is a driving force behind NorthWestern Energy’s recent proposal to build $800 million worth of gas plants. There are far, far less expensive (and cleaner) ways to produce power, but the company has an incentive to build bigger, more expensive plants because they are assured of a big annual “Return on Equity” payment when they do..

This Return on Equity payment policy is also a driving force behind NorthWestern Energy’s desperate attempts to convince us that we must not let Colstrip shut down. 

NorthWestern Energy purchased a 30% share of Colstrip back in 2008. The company paid $187 million out of pocket, yet a year later when they went before the Public Service Commission to arrange reimbursement for their purchase, they claimed that the asset was actually worth $407 million. 

This sweetheart arrangement explains why NorthWestern wants to keep Colstrip open even though the power it produces is very expensive and unwanted by west coast markets.Other companies that have an ownership stake in Colstrip want out because they see they are losing money. They lack the sweetheart deal that NorthWestern Energy has. Return on Equity has to be addressed if our power generation going to evolve with the rest of the country.

What other issues are important to your campaign? (300 word limit). 

Honesty, Integrity, and Transparency are important to my campaign.

In terms of processes, ratepayers have not been well served by the existing Pre-Approval process. To explain why I’m going to quote Roger Koopman:

“Among regulated public utilities in Montana, NorthWestern Energy enjoys the exclusive privilege of being able to seek PSC preapproval of major asset purchases. The advantage provided to NWE is enormous. While other public utilities are expected to shoulder the business risk of a new asset acquisition, and come before the Commission for evaluation of that asset at their next general rate case, NorthWestern’s “preapproval” sheds that risk and places it squarely on the ratepayer’s back. “

Commissioner Koopman is spot on. You don’t always hear a Democrat say that.

Other issues:

I want schools and businesses to be allowed to put up solar panels in order to reduce their costs.

I want people to be allowed to participate in net metering.

I want to encourage renewable energy and storage projects. We are well positioned to be the clean energy exporters of the future. Let’s not miss out.

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