PSC says no to several NWE energy contracts 

Environmentalists and consumer advocates applauded the Montana Public Service Commission’s (PSC) decision not to pre-approve some controversial energy contracts this week, although they hope the commission will go further in its final decision.

In considering NorthWestern Energy’s (NWE) “default supply portfolio”—the list of power sources for most Montana consumers for the coming years—the commission approved two contracts but not several others. The commissioners also voted four to one to concur with a staff report that recommended rejecting most of the contracts because NWE’s selection process was inadequate, and they voted unanimously to state that the portfolio should have put more of an emphasis on conservation.

The PSC is continuing its deliberations, and could issue a final decision as early as next week.

“We have measured applause,” says Patrick Judge, energy policy director for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “It’s a step in the right direction but it’s kind of a baby step.”

While Judge is encouraged by the recognition of the importance of conservation, he says he thinks the commission could have gone further and required NWE to include conservation.

David Ponder, executive director of the Montana Public Interest Research Group, is pleased that the PSC will not simply be “rubber-stamping” the deal.

“After the public hearings the public’s message was pretty clear,” Ponder says. “The process the utility used the first time around stunk and it needs to be done over. So we’re optimistic that based on the votes we saw [Monday] that the PSC is moving in the right direction to get the utility to do this process over and do the process right…with competitive bids and to make sure conservation and renewables are included in the portfolio.”

The default supply portfolio was criticized by non-profit groups and by some losing bidders who charged that NWE’s predecessor, Montana Power Company, had not conducted a competitive enough bidding process and that consumers would pay the price. One of the contracts the PSC declined to approve this week was NWE’s deal with Montana Wind Harness to generate wind power. The deal was controversial because several more experienced producers were passed over in favor of start-up Montana Wind Harness, whose founder, Jim Carkulis of Missoula, has a long history of business and legal troubles.

Some renewable energy experts expressed concern that if the deal with Montana Wind Harness fails, wind energy faces an uncertain future in Montana.

Wind may have been given a black eye by the whole affair, Judge says, but he thinks it will recover. “Just on its own merits, wind is strong enough and Montana is such a good place for it that we will see commercial scale wind in Montana.”

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