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PSC Oks policies to encourage alternative energy

The Montana Public Service Commission has endorsed new policies that could help the development of small, alternative power projects in the state. On two 4-1 votes Tuesday, the commission said small wind, hydro and other renewable electrical power projects will get long-term contracts at a standard rate to sell power to utilities. Such contracts would help the smaller projects obtain financing. “There’s going to be some really good, positive change here,” said Commissioner Tom Schneider, D-Helena. “It will provide diversity (in the form of) small, renewable projects.” Commission staffers haven’t drafted a final order. The options discussed for the “standard rate” are matching the price NorthWestern pays PPL Montana for electricity; matching current market rates; or setting rates based on a forecast of market prices by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, PSC staffer Will Rosquist said today. Commissioner Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, voted against the proposals, saying they could lead to higher electric rates for NorthWestern Energy’s 300,000 electricity customers in Montana. “I see zero consumer protection in any of these (proposals),” he said. “All I see is acquiescence to whatever the (small power projects) want – let them choose the highest rate.” State law requires utilities to buy power from small facilities under rates and terms set by the commission if the small projects can’t reach a rate agreement with the utility. NorthWestern argued that small power developers should have to win contracts in a competitive bidding process. NorthWestern Energy spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch said the company wants to see the final order before commenting. “Our concern all along is being forced into buying power that is higher cost than we could get otherwise,” Rapkoch said. “It really comes down to the cost for consumers as our primary concern.” The preliminary PSC decision says small projects producing up to 10 megawatts can get a contract with NorthWestern. Mike Uda, a Helena attorney representing some of the small power project developers, said the decisions will be a “good boost” for small projects, particularly wind power. “If we’re at all serious that we want to develop alternative energy resources, this is a good tool to accomplish that objective,” he said. “It’s a very good decision, heading in the right direction.”