Montana’s Public Service Commission, with its newly minted 5-0 Republican majority, chose Commissioner Bill Gallagher as its new chairman Monday.
And Gallagher, a Helena attorney, wasted no time in spelling out what he sees as the panel’s central thrust: That it opposes using subsidies or mandates to promote any type of power, particularly wind power.
In a clear reference to wind power, Gallagher said all five of the PSC’s Republican members “campaigned against the concept of using the utility bill to force Montana’s families and employers to be unwilling investors in high-cost, low-output, intermittent generation and other programs that at present can exist only through government mandates and substantial tax and ratepayer subsidies.”
The five-member PSC regulates electric, natural gas, telephone and water utilities in Montana.
By electing commissioners who oppose renewable-energy mandates, the Montana public has sent a “unanimous message” that state energy policy should focus on “affordable and reliable power for Montanan families and businesses without preference to the kind or source of energy or special interest,” Gallagher said.
Three new commissioners were sworn into office Monday morning in Helena: Kirk Bushman, a Billings facility designer representing the PSC southeastern Montana district; former state Rep. Roger Koopman of Bozeman, representing southwest Montana; and state Sen. Bob Lake of Hamilton, representing western Montana.
Koopman defeated Commissioner John Vincent, D-Gallatin Gateway, and Lake beat Commissioner Gail Gutsche, D-Missoula.
Bushman won an open seat that had been held by outgoing Commissioner Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, who couldn’t run because of term limits.
Gallagher and the other sitting commissioner, Travis Kavulla of Great Falls, won election in 2010.
Gallagher remarked that Montana’s commission may be the most inexperienced utility commissions in the country, but said that shouldn’t be a concern because of the “exceptional staff” of the commission.
“They provide the underpinning of the work that is accomplished here,” he said.
Gallagher also noted that the new commissioners have a diverse range of experience, from Bushman’s engineering degree and work on project management to the legislative and business experience of Lake and Koopman.
While the PSC can help shape state energy policy and decide in which projects electric and gas utilities can invest, mandates or subsidies for renewable energy, like wind power, are in state and federal law.
State law says electric utilities must provide at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015, and the federal government pays wind-power projects a $22-per-megawatt-hour subsidy for power produced.
Power from wind projects within the portfolio of NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest utility, is among the cheaper types of power for consumers. Yet the price paid by consumers does not include the taxpayer subsidy that producers receive.
The commission Monday also chose Lake as its new vice-chairman, overlooking Kavulla, who has been commission chairman since mid-2011.
Kavulla became chairman in April 2011 with the support of the panel’s two Democrats at that time, ousting Gallagher after a dispute over Molnar’s involvement in a legal case before the PSC.
However, on Monday, Kavulla was the one nominating Gallagher to become the next PSC chairman. All five Republicans voted for Gallagher as chair, and the choice of Lake as vice-chair also was unanimous
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