Supporters of a bill designed to let an electricity cooperative pursue two wind farm projects in Eastern Montana like to say it gives “a green light to green energy.”
But opponents, including NorthWestern Energy and the state Public Service Commission, testified Monday that only Montana power consumers will see “green” – in the form of higher utility bills.
The measure, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dave Wanzenried of Missoula, would enable the Billings-based Green Electricity Buying Cooperative to own $31.7 million in wind farm projects and sell bonds to finance them.
Current law limits co-ops to buying and supplying power.
Wanzenried and other supporters hailed the bill as an opportunity to put Montana ahead of the curve in green energy and give consumers the choice of getting their electricity from small, independent wind projects.
“This is about the right of Montanans to have access to the energy that comes as the wind blows over our mountains and the sun shines in the morning and the water flows through our creeks and rivers,” said Steve Corrick, vice president of the co-op’s board. “That’s all we’re asking for is that chance.”
Opponents called the bill an “inappropriate approach” to green energy and said it would complicate NorthWestern Energy’s efforts to secure long-term power contracts. That, they claimed, would mean higher electricity prices for NorthWestern customers.
“Passing this bill isn’t going to punish (NorthWestern) and their bottom line, but it will punish the other customers that remain,” PSC Chairman Greg Jergeson told the House Judiciary Committee.
Committee members did not act on the bill immediately.
The measure is aimed at helping the Green Electricity Buying Cooperative and others like it move forward with projects financed through a new bonding program that Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., wrote into the 2005 energy bill.
If the proposed legislation fails, the co-ops would have to forfeit the bonding authority they were awarded.
Under the program, Montana received $72 million for 34 wind-power projects planned by various cities, counties and electricity co-ops in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state. A new round of funding is expected to be awarded soon.
Green Electricity Buying Cooperative received $31.7 million for two wind farms – one in Yellowstone County northwest of Billings and the second near Fort Peck in McCone County. Each would produce up to 10 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 3,000 homes each, and could be online in about two years.
Members of the co-op, who number 38, would buy the electricity generated by the windmills. The power would be transported to customers along lines owned by regular utilities, such as NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities, which would charge consumers for the green power.
Corrick said “tremendous demand” for such power exists in Montana, although a lobbyist for NorthWestern challenged that claim.
Just 384 of NorthWestern’s 363,000 electricity customers take advantage of a company program allowing them to buy green energy at a higher price, lobbyist John Fitzpatrick said.
“I would submit to you there is not a tremendous demand for green (power), not if people have to pay for it,” he said.
Co-op officials have acknowledged wind power would likely cost members more money initially, but said that over time they should pay less as the co-op pays off the projects and returns profits to members.
Fitzpatrick also criticized the proposal for containing no backup plan if the wind isn’t blowing.
John Alke, a lawyer for Montana-Dakota Utilities, criticized Senate amendments to the bill, saying they created a “mini-deregulation act” aimed at his company.
A companion bill that would have allowed counties and other local governments to develop small wind projects was tabled last week by the House Appropriations Committee.
27 March 2007
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