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Bozeman residents decry Montana bill incentivizing investments in coal before hearing | Montana Legislature

Following demonstrations around Montana, state lawmakers heard testimony on a bill that could force Montana’s energy customers to assume costs and risks associated with utility investments in coal-fired power.

Senate Bill 379, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R- Great Falls, would ensure that utilities purchasing shares in coal power plants recover the “undepreciated book value of the plant along with the share of decommissioning and remediation,” the senator said at a hearing on March 30.

The bill would allow NorthWestern Energy, with the Montana Public Service Commission’s consent, to enter into a power purchase agreement or lease and earn a rate of return, according to Fitzpatrick. Critics said SB 379 could result in millions of dollars of additional charges for Montana’s energy consumers.

Opponents of SB 379 gathered for demonstrations in Bozeman, Missoula and Great Falls before the bill’s hearing before the House Energy, Technology, and Federal Relations Committee on Wednesday. The had not finished debating the bill by 6:45 p.m.

The approximately 15 people who stood in front of the Gallatin County Courthouse around noon held signs with slogans like “Clean Up NorthWestern Energy” while they chanted “Fight the power company.”

George Buffington demonstrate in opposition to Senate Bill 379 on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, outside of the Gallatin County Courthouse.

The Gallatin Progressive Action Network, Our Revolution Montana and 350 Missoula helped organize the demonstrations, according to Andy Boyd, an organizer. The Northern Plains Resource Council set up lobbying displays around the Capitol in Helena on Wednesday, he said.

Boyd said SB 379 could “turn NorthWestern Energy ratepayers into the company’s own private ATM machine.”

Tom Woods, a former member of the Montana House of Representatives and a former candidate for the Montana Public Service Commission, said the bill could result in an extra $50 to $100 in yearly charges for ratepayers over the next 20 years.

“I can see this moving fast, and I can see people getting hurt,” he said.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Fitzpatrick said rates would likely increase at much lower rates than initially estimated by the Public Service Commission.

SB-379 Protest

Patti Steinmuller demonstrates in opposition to Senate Bill 379 on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, outside of the Gallatin County Courthouse.

Investment in Colstrip is needed to ensure Montanans have reliable access to power, he said. This “dispatchable energy” comes from sources like coal, hydro and natural gas.

In a news release, NorthWestern Energy executives said the utility “would only consider acquiring enough additional critical power from Colstrip to reliably and affordably serve our Montana customers.”

“Our focus is and will continue to be reliable, affordable energy that is available when our customers need it and grid stability for all Montanans whether they are a NorthWestern Energy customer or not,” said John Hines, NorthWestern Energy Vice President Supply and Montana Government Affairs, in the release.

James Brown, chairman of the Public Service Commission, said on behalf of its five members that SB 379 undermines “100 years of ratemaking policy by shifting all the burden on ratepayers and away from regulated monopolies.”

The PSC voted unanimously to oppose the bill in March.

Patti Steinmuller, a Bozeman resident who attended Wednesday’s demonstration and testified at the hearing, said she thinks the bill is a bad move.

“We get stuck with the costs of NorthWestern not paying the rates that it should by trying to rely on coal,” Steinmuller said. “They’re not interested in anything renewable.”

Steinmuller said it’s time to think about what’s in the best interest of Montanans while allowing energy companies to have a reasonable profit.

“Our rates will go up dramatically for 20 years at least,” she said. “Everyone will be affected.”

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Read More: Bozeman residents decry Montana bill incentivizing investments in coal before hearing | Montana Legislature

2021-04-14 19:45:00

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