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Consumers and alternative energy advocates scored a victory recently when the Montana Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found the state Public Service Commission knowingly hindered solar energy development when it set rates and conditions for NorthWestern Energy to purchase solar power.

Solar energy developers sued the PSC after it set low rates for the purchases and limited the lengths of contracts for solar power purchases in 2017. After a district court ruled in favor of solar power advocates, the PSC appealed the ruling to the state’s high court. In a 4-3 opinion, the justices backed the district court.

The ruling opens up potential for more and larger solar power projects. And there is a lot of potential in the sun-drenched reaches of Eastern Montana. More solar power will help wean the state off the coal-fired power that is rapidly falling into disfavor worldwide because of the carbon dioxide it contributes to climate change.

The lawsuit came after a history of PSC decisions that favored NorthWestern over alternative energy producers. In one hot-mic episode, a commissioner was overheard telling a staff member the low rates set for solar power purchases and the limit of 10 years on a solar power contract should be enough to discourage any proposals to develop the alternative energy. The ruling from the Supreme Court will force the PSC to reconsider rates and time limits on solar contracts.

Perhaps just as importantly, the court ruling and the findings it was based on should serve as a heads up to voters. The PSC has long operated in a kind of obscurity of technical language and formulas for setting utility rates. That has led voters to largely ignore the elections of commissioners. This case lifts the veil off some of the PSC proceedings and shows the commission has often been biased in favor of NorthWestern, the state’s largest utility and one that has also demonstrated a bias against alternative forms of energy.

The commission seats of three of the state’s five PSC districts are up for grabs in the November election – including District 3, which includes Gallatin County. In that race Republican James Brown is facing Democrat Tom Woods. Use reliable sources of news coverage and contact the candidates themselves to learn their positions on the issues. Then make your choice wisely. The PSC will face many more alternative energy decisions in the coming years.

Let’s do what we can to see that they’re the right ones.

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Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

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