The race for Public Service Commission is getting a lot of interest.

Five people have announced their candidacy for the seat that represents southwest Montana, now held by commissioner Roger Koopman, a Bozeman Republican, who is termed out.

Alan George, a Montana State University associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, is running as a technical expert. The Republican’s professional work has focused on thermodynamics, heat transfer and fluid mechanics, which, he said, are relevant to the energy regulation the PSC does.

“The PSC’s job has become more difficult because power generation is changing as coal plants retire, creating uncertainty and concern with where we’ll get our power in the future,” George said. “It would be hard to find anything the PSC deals with regularly that I am not familiar with.”

The PSC oversees Montana’s utilities including railroads, telecommunications and energy companies. In recent years, the PSC’s work has garnered interest as the five-member board grapples with what Montana’s energy future will look like.

The PSC is now reviewing NorthWestern Energy’s procurement plan, which lays out the company’s long-term vision. The plan states NorthWestern is facing an energy shortage and needs to add about 800 megawatts of capacity by 2025. The company concluded that developing more natural gas sources is the best way to add capacity but has said it will solicit bids from providers of all types of energy. The procurement plan also notes NorthWestern will continue to use coal-fired power from Colstrip.

Many — including dozens at a public meeting in Bozeman — have criticized the document.

George said the plan “is basically very sound” and NorthWestern “makes some very good points.”

This summer, James Brown and Walter Derzay, also Republicans, announced their bids for the PSC. They will face George in the June primary.

Brown, a Dillon lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for the PSC in 2012, has represented several businesses before the regulatory board and said he will make decisions that keep utilities reliable and low cost. He advocates for an “all-of-the-above energy source strategy.”

Derzay, who has not yet filed, drives a garbage truck for L&L Site Services Inc. and said he has seen the PSC’s efforts to regulate utilities firsthand. The Belgrade man wants to expand services to rural areas and said Montana needs to be cautious about investing in renewable energy to ensure that power remains reliable and affordable.

Like George, Rob Elwood just launched his campaign. He is the lone independent in the race. He lives in Harlowton, works for a medical software company and serves on the city council.

He has long been interested in railroads and worked in telecommunications for years, which, he said, required knowledge of power supply issues.

Elwood sees power generation and distribution as the most important issues facing the PSC. He said NorthWestern’s procurement plan must be revised because it doesn’t adequately address renewable energy sources and coal, which he sees as having a future in Montana.

“It doesn’t matter whether you believe in climate change or you don’t,” Elwood said. “We need cleaner energy generation in Montana regardless.”

The only Democrat who has filed for the seat so far is Bozeman Rep. Tom Woods. Woods has sponsored several bills over the years aimed at holding utility companies more accountable to ratepayers. He plans to continue this work if elected to the PSC. He also sees NorthWestern as holding the state back from achieving its potential as an energy producer.

Woods has received the most donations of any candidate totaling more than $10,000, according to campaign finance records from the Commissioner of Political Practices.

“The PSC is probably the most important race no one cares about,” Woods said last week as he stood on the courthouse steps with other local Democrats for the first day of candidate filing. “If you care about climate change or the economic future of Montana or what you pay on your electricity bill each month, then you care about the PSC.”

Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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