HELENA – The state Senate Tuesday deadlocked on a bill allowing utilities to request a long-term exemption from Montana’s renewable-power mandate, with critics calling it an “end run” around the law.
“It’s one of many bills we’ve seen (this session) that are basically a set of attacks on renewable energy, on alternative energy,” said Sen. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula. “I would hope we would (vote against) this and other bills like it.”
A motion to pass Senate Bill 330 failed on a 25-25 vote, with all 22 of the chamber’s Democrats and three Republicans voting against it.
But a second vote to kill the measure failed, leaving it in a sort of legislative limbo for at least another day. If it doesn’t pass the Senate by a Thursday deadline, the measure is dead.
SB330, sponsored by Sen. Ed Walker, R-Billings, would allow utilities to petition the state Public Service Commission for a waiver from the renewable-power mandate if the utility can show that meeting the mandate will cause “adverse customer impacts.”
The waiver could be for “not less than three years,” and, under questioning, Walker conceded that SB330 could allow a waiver for an indefinite time.
Current state law says utilities in Montana must obtain at least 10 percent of the electric power from renewable sources by 2010 and 15 percent by 2015.
Walker said utilities already can file for a short-term waiver under the law under some circumstances, and that SB330 allows the longer waiver if utilities have trouble finding projects that won’t cause big rate increases for customers.
“It’s been difficult to find cost-effective projects,” he said. “This bill was brought forward to make sure that ratepayers aren’t hit with exceedingly high energy prices.”
Opponents of SB330 said the measure undermines the five-year-old renewable-power mandate, which they said has spurred development of wind and other alternative power projects and created jobs in the state.
Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, assailed Republicans as waging a “war on energy jobs in the state of Montana” by sponsoring and supporting bills this session that seek to repeal or undermine state incentives for renewable-power production.
“When does it stop?” he said. “We know this has created jobs. We know this renewable portfolio standard has been a success. The war on energy jobs for our economy has got to stop.”
“This bill is an end-run around the renewable portfolio standard,” added Sen. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls.
The bill’s supporters, however, said requiring utilities to buy renewable power has already and will continue to increase electricity costs for consumers, as renewable power is often more expensive than power produced by fossil fuels like coal.
They pointed to a recent rate increase request from Montana-Dakota Utilities, which said one reason for the increase is its construction of a wind-power plant to help it meet the Montana mandate. MDU serves about 25,000 electric customers in eastern Montana.
“The reason for this bill that high electricity costs to small businesses also cost jobs,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings. “You can go too far with these standards. … Are we trying to provide these special targets for favored economic groups, or are we worried about providing a fair deal for all small businesses to create jobs and succeed?”
The three Republicans voting against the bill were Sens. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish, Dave Lewis and Helena and Llew Jones of Conrad.
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