Rooftop Solar Customers Could See Higher Rates Under NorthWestern Plan

May 23, 2019

Advocates for homeowners generating electricity through rooftop solar panels protested a request by the state’s largest utility Thursday that could increase power bills for some of those customers.

NorthWestern Energy is asking the state Public Service Commission (PSC) to approve a new fee that certain customers will have to pay if they generate more energy than they use and feed it onto the electric grid, a process known as net-metering.

NorthWestern Spokesperson Jo Dee Black says it’s about customers paying their fair share. She says electric bills have increased for people without their own solar power generators.

"They’re paying more than they would if there was not net-metering customers on the system."

Black says net-metering customers pay 65 percent of the costs of carrying electricity to and from their home. Black says about 2,300 of the company’s more than 300,000 customers fall into this category.

NorthWestern Energy is asking for permission to charge future net-metering customers more. It’s part of their larger overall rate case, their first in 10 years, where they justify to regulators the amount they charge customers to cover the company's costs and realize a profit.

The new charge is equal to about $8.60 per kilowatt hour during the hour of peak energy use each month.

The Public Service Commission says peak energy use varies, but testimony has suggested that NorthWestern’s request could add $40 to $50 a month to the bills of certain net-metering customers.

But, the PSC says, testimony in the case has also claimed that a small percentage of net-metering customers could see their power bills lowered.

NorthWestern's proposal would also cut by almost half the credits people with solar panels receive for the energy they feed the electrical grid.

"I couldn't think of a better way to kill this industry. In fact, that’s almost what it seems like it’s designed to do," says Bradley Layton.

Layton is an associate professor at Missoula College, where he directs the Energy Technology Program.

He was among around two dozen people objecting to the proposed net metering rule changes during a public hearing at the PSC office Thursday.

Patricia Bik, with Northern Plains Resource Council, was among them. She said she doesn’t have solar panels yet, but wants to add them to her house in Helena. And because she’s not grandfathered into the system, she could have to pay the new charges.

"Which would make it really prohibitive or of no value whatsoever to me to invest in solar," Bik said. "We need, desperately, to invest in solar here."

Bik says solar is a key part of reducing the amount of energy created through fossil fuels.

NorthWestern Energy’s website says more than 60 percent of the company's electricity in 2017 came from renewable generation from hydro, wind, and solar.

In response to concerns Thursday that NorthWestern’s plan could remove incentives for homeowners who want to develop their own renewable energy generation, potentially through rooftop solar, spokerspon Jo Dee Black said, “Bottom line is that we want to balance the needs of all customers for the system to be fair for all of the customers that we serve."

The Montana Public Service Commission is expected to make a decision on NorthWestern’s request to change the rules for its future net-metering customers in September.

NorthWestern says if their plan is approved they'll reach out to current customers who are net-metering to let them know they can switch to the new system or stay with their current deal.

The PSC will continue to take public comment on NorthWestern’s rate case until they reach their decision later this year.