Montana’s largest utility company is reviewing its electric rates for the first time in 10 years and one provision has people worried that the new rates could hurt clean energy progress in the state.
Around 30 people gathered in the Yellowstone County courthouse lawn advocating for clean energy.
Most are with the environmental advocacy group Northern Plains Resource Council, which organized the rally.
They’re protesting several different Northwestern Energy initiatives they claim are anti-clean energy.
During a tongue-in-cheek part of the event, a volunteer cuts a paper mache light bulb with a knife.
This is what they think Northwestern Energy is doing to Montana’s clean energy future with its proposed rates.
Northern Plains members like Ed Gulick are concerned the new rates will discourage residents and businesses from turning to solar energy systems.
"When we have local utilities that stand in the way of [clean energy], similar to what Northwestern Energy is, that puts a cap on the opportunities here in Montana for business development," he said.
NorthWestern Energy is asking state regulators to approve a fee that new customers would pay if they generate more energy than they use from things like home rooftop solar.
Right now, solar customers benefit from a process called net-metering.
It takes extra energy from rooftop solar and feeds it back into the electric grid. That energy then returns to the homeowner later in the form of credits. It also goes into their neighbors' homes.
NorthWestern Energy’s proposed rates could change that, but the company maintains the proposed rules are fair.
The utility's spokesperson, Jo Dee Black, says the rate changes level the playing field.
“Some of the customers are renters or people who, for whatever reason, don’t have net metering on their residence. It might not fit well with it or it might not be an investment they want to make," said Black. "And so, the rate is addressing the cost shift from those ratepayers to those who choose to make the investment in the net metering equipment and technology.”
She added their customers are around 60 percent carbon free.
The proposed change wouldn’t affect roughly 2,500 current solar, hydro and wind energy users who, like Roxa Reller from Helena, are grandfathered into the old rules.
Reller says she’s concerned that the new rates would hurt future solar energy users.
"It sounds like the work that NorthWestern Energy is doing is the antithesis of what they advertise," she said. "They’re not encouraging people to help them provide energy into the future with alternative sources. And our home solar arrays help our neighbors and they help anyone downstream in the electric grid from us."
NorthWestern Energy proposed its Montana Electric Rate Review last year. It’s currently before the Montana Public Service Commission.