“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It’s not particularly sage advice. Most of us call it common sense. Yet the Montana Legislature just can’t seem to keep their hands off of Montana’s Renewable Energy Standard.
The Renewable Energy Standard, passed in 2005, requires electric utilities to acquire 15 percent of their energy from new renewable resources by 2015. Both of Montana’s largest utilities, NorthWestern Energy and Montana Dakota Utilities, are already meeting the overall standard. NorthWestern Energy is primarily meeting the standard with energy from the Judith Gap Wind Farm and the new Spion Kop Wind Farm. The two projects are also the two lowest-cost, long-term, fixed-price, resources on NorthWestern Energy’s system.
Since the Renewable Energy Standard was enacted, Montana has seen more than $1.6 billion of capital investment in renewable energy, the creation of 1,500 high-paying construction jobs, 100 permanent jobs, and 650 megawatts of newly installed renewable energy. Two-thirds of that new energy serves out of state customers, a Montana-made export attracted here because of our excellent wind resource and welcoming policies.
Despite these facts, the Montana Senate has already passed two bills, SB 45 and SB 31, that would weaken the Renewable Energy Standard through retroactive giveaways.
SB 45, sponsored by Sen. Jim Keane of Butte, is openly designed to reach back and reward PPL Montana’s upgrade of Rainbow Dam with development incentives, even though the upgrade has already taken place. PPL has publicly valued the incentives at $200,000 per year, in perpetuity. And because the energy from the already completed project can be counted toward the Renewable Energy Standard, it may well push out the date we can expect the standard to incentivize new projects and new jobs for Montanans. This retroactive giveaway to a well-connected corporate interest is disgraceful.
Meanwhile, SB 31 sponsored by Sen. Debby Barrett of Dillon, would wipe the Renewable Energy Standard out entirely by including existing hydro facilities into the RPS. The bill would flood the standard in a wave of hydro energy, some of which was first constructed a century ago. Hydro is indeed a renewable resource, but the standard is focused on promoting new, renewable resources.
In its current form, SB 31 is essentially the same bill former Gov. Schweitzer charred in 2011 with his “veto” branding iron. The fact that the bill again passed out of committee and through the Senate is evidence that the Legislature just doesn’t get it. The Renewable Energy Standard works for Montana.
Admittedly, legislators did appear to attempt to make SB 31 only apply to new hydro projects by amendment on the Senate floor. But either by mischief or mistake, the amendment failed to align the bill with the Senate’s stated desires. As written, SB 31 would completely undermine Montana’s Renewable Energy Standard.
For at least the last six years, the Legislature has purported to be primarily concerned with promoting jobs and economic opportunity for Montanans. But on the issue of the Renewable Energy Standard, far too many legislators have found themselves stuck in a dizzying spin debating the definition of “renewable” and righting perceived slights of the original standard.
Anyone that bothers to take just a pace or two back to get the bigger picture can see that the debates are madness. The Renewable Energy Standard is first and foremost an economic development act, and as an economic development tool it has been a great success for Montana.
The Renewable Energy Standard has delivered cost-effective (in fact cheap) energy for Montanans. It has brought jobs and economic opportunity. And it has put us on a path toward future growth. On the whole, there is nothing to fix in Montana’s Renewable Energy Standard, and the Legislature should greet any plan to do so with great skepticism.
Jeff L. Fox is the Montana policy manger for Renewable Northwest Project, a non-profit regional advocacy group that promotes the expansion of environmentally responsible renewable energy resources.