The leadership of the Montana House of Representatives has accused the Public Service Commission of trying to skirt consumer protections that became law in 2005.
In a letter to PSC Chairman Greg Jergeson, House Speaker Scott Sales and House Majority Leader Mike Lange warned that any attempt to go around the protections built into last session’s Senate Bill 415 would be met by “appropriate action” from the House.
The controversy centers around who will pay for the cost of ancillary services associated with small-scale alternative power generation. Those are items related to the generation and delivery of power that don’t include its simple generation, transmission and delivery. Some of those services would include energy loss, energy imbalance, scheduling and dispatching, according to SB 415.
Commissioner Jergeson said that in 1993 the PSC decided that facilities that were rated fewer than three megawatts were not on the hook for those costs. None of the current commissioners were serving then. The commission recently ruled that generation facilities with capacities under 10 megawatts would not have to pay ancillary costs.
The ruling was pending when the House leaders sent their letter to Commissioner Jergeson on Dec. 11. The legislators wrote, “We do not find it acceptable for you to change the effect of law by changing your limitations and subsequently removing protections at that level.”
The letter accused the commissioners of violating their own rule. It argued that ancillary costs incurred under the 10-megawatt rule would be unfairly passed on to families and businesses.
In an e-mail, Rep. Lange added that under current law it was impossible to determine exactly what the cost to consumers would be, “but it is absolutely a fact that consumers will have to pay those rates when the increased “˜capacity’ hits the grid. The actions of the PSC are 100 percent anti-ratepayer.” The House would address the PSC’s actions in this session, he wrote.
Majority Leader Lange said that the PSC chairman had not responded to his latest request to discuss the matter.
Mr. Jergeson said that he had spoken to an assistant of the speaker, but had not been able to talk with the speaker himself. “I’m willing to address some of the inaccuracies that are touted as fact in the letter,” he said.
In a letter of reply, the chairman wrote, “It appears your letter was an attempt to influence a PSC decision being made by this Commission as a quasi-judicial body near the end of a contested case proceeding.” He pointed to the differences in the legislative and judicial decision-making processes, and he said that he was reluctant to discuss the pending case to protect the rights of the parties involved. He noted that the letter from the legislators had arrived after the case’s evidentiary record closed and could not be part of the deliberation.
“We have to protect the due process rights of the parties,” the chairman said over the phone. He added that motions to reconsider the ruling were still pending.
Nobody on the commission was ignoring the renewable integration costs, he said, noting that he was a member of an association that was examining those kinds of issues. He said that the commission issued the ruling based on the best information given to it during the proceeding.
The three-megawatt limit was set in default of a contested ruling during a rulemaking proceeding, he noted. The 10-megawatt limit was set during a process that more resembled a trial.
The PSC had to consider federal as well as state law, Mr. Jergeson said. He added that while a combined reading of state and federal law didn’t shed a great deal of light on the matter, the law did suggest that that a facility with a capacity as great as 80 megawatts could be shielded from ancillary costs. The House leadership was mixing apples and oranges, he said, and could not pass a law that overrode federal law.
Dissenting from the PSC’s ruling was Commissioner Brad Molnar of Laurel. “What’s magic about 10 megawatts?” he said. “Current law is three megawatts. We went against our own rule. We did it for the economic benefit of a few in this state to the economic detriment of the consumer.”
As an example of the kind of cost that might be passed on to consumers, Mr. Molnar pointed to line imbalance, a violation that carries a $2,000 per day fine. If the imbalance were caused by a small wind generation facility, that cost would be passed on to NorthWestern Energy, which in turn would pass it on to the ratepayer, he said.
“Then they’ll screw the ratepayer. If they don’t have to provide reliable power, all of the risk is lifted to Northwestern Energy and the ratepayer,” he said.
By Jim Larson
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