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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Judge: Regulators Gave NorthWestern Energy Illegal Pass On Renewable Energy Requirements

NorthWestern Energy building in Butte, Montana.
Nora Saks
NorthWestern Energy building in Butte, Montana.

A Montana District Judge says state utility regulators erroneously gave NorthWestern Energy a pass from a legal requirement to buy power from local small-scale renewable energy projects. 

The court order from Judge James Manley written August, 1 overturns a Montana Public Service Commission waiver. That waiver allowed NorthWestern to, in 2015 and 2016, not comply with a state law requiring the utility to buy about 65 megawatts of electricity from so-called community renewable energy projects.

NorthWestern has requested, and received, a pass from the Montana law ever since it took effect in 2012.

Without the waiver, NorthWestern would face a penalty of over a million dollars a year if it failed to buy enough small-project solar, wind or hydro energy

NorthWestern has supported efforts to repeal the requirements from state law.

However Sarah Norcott, an attorney for the utility, says NorthWestern has still tried to comply with it.

“Despite our efforts and taking all reasonable steps we were unable to find projects, for a variety of reasons that could qualify, sometimes those were circumstances outside of our control," Norcott said. "Sometimes it was due to cost parameters.”

Norcott says one of the things out of the company’s control is how many local community renewable energy projects there are in the state. She says ownership of some of the projects in Montana don’t meet the laws definition of ‘local’.

After the PSC granted the utility’s latest waiver request last year, the Montana Environmental Information Center sued to overturn it.

Brian Fadie with MEIC says NorthWestern’s arguments for why they haven't complied with the state law don’t add up.

“It’s not a huge requirement," Fadie said. "We’re not talking about a tremendous amount of energy here. It’s just a couple of projects. So it’s entirely workable and the company should be able to acquire them, really, next year.”

According to NorthWestern Energy, the company will continue to seek a waiver from the PSC for the requirements and fees in 2017 and 2018. The company says it has deals with five community renewable energy projects in Montana and is working on a sixth, which will bring NorthWestern within 10 megawatts of the law’s requirements.

District Court Judge Manley writes in his order that the PSC failed to reasonably evaluate whether NorthWestern took all reasonable steps to comply with the law.

The Judge’s order also notes some regulators dislike for community renewable energy law.

Manley writes in his order that several commissioners supported granting NorthWestern waivers because of “their personal opinions that the ... law itself is unreasonable, and they wished to ‘send a message’ to the State legislature.”

NorthWestern attorney Sarah Norcott says the utility is still evaluating whether to appeal the judge’s ruling.

The Montana Public Service Commission, in an emailed statement, said they are disappointed in the court's decision and the commission's legal team is reviewing the decision. 

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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