HELENA – Supporters of small, renewable electricity producers say the chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission removed a report from the commission’s official state website after testifying in favor a bill written by NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest utility.
On Wednesday, the first item on the PSC’s website was a brightly colored graph and a link to the report, which detailed in easy-to-understand charts and graphs exactly where NorthWestern Energy buys electricity and how those sources of electricity impact residential ratepayers’ energy bill.
The link to the document was prominently displayed on the front page of the PSC’s website for more than a year. However, on Thursday, the report disappeared and was replaced with a photo of the new five-member commission that regulates utilities in Montana.
Jeff Fox, the Montana policy manager for Renewable Northwest Project, said the timing of the report’s removal from the website was suspicious because it happened the day after PSC chairman Bill Gallagher, R-Helena, testified in favor a bill backed by NorthWestern Energy.
Gallagher said he asked PSC staff to remove the report because he found what he believed to be inaccurate information contained in it.
The proposed law, House Bill 188, has to do with small power producers called “qualifying facilities,” such as the Horseshoe Bend Wind Park south of Great Falls.
Federal law requires utility monopolies to purchase a certain amount of power from qualifying facilities, or QF. A QF is defined as a generating facility of 80 MW or less whose primary energy source is renewable (hydro, wind or solar), biomass, waste or geothermal resources.
HB 188 would require the PSC to set rate schedules only for QFs that produce 100 kilowatts of power or less.
Any federally designated QF that produces more than 100 kilowatts would be limited from selling its power to NorthWestern.
The PSC previously voted to take no position on HB 188, but Gallagher testified in support of the measure as a citizen, not as a representative of the commission. Fox said it’s not a good sign that the chairman of the PSC had the report removed from the commission’s website after information contained in the report was used by opponents of the HB 188 during their testimony Wednesday.
Opponents of the bill said the independent report from the PSC showed that type-1 QFs, which include small wind and hydro projects, were the second least-expensive source of energy in NorthWestern’s portfolio. They argued that the bill would effectively eliminate small wind and hydro projects in the state.
“I think that report is such a tremendous value to ratepayers so people can see what they pay and what resources are actually costing them,” Fox said. “I don’t think it’s a good sign that the report disappeared. It calls into question whether or not the PSC is committed to well-informed rate payers or whether they’re more interested in promoting the views of NorthWestern, who they’re supposed to be regulating.”
Gallagher said a pie chart showed type-1 QFs making up less than two-tenths of 1 percent of NorthWestern’s electric supply in 2011. Gallagher said he believes that number is closer to 4 percent. Gallagher said he discovered the discrepancy as he was preparing to testify Wednesday.
“I didn’t use that particular document because there appeared to be a mistake in it. When I got to the hearing, there were other issues raised that called the document into question,” he said.
Gallagher said on the chance the report contained misinformation, he had it taken off the PSC’s website until the validity of the information could be verified.
He said it’s possible that the information was accurate at the time in which the study was conducted, but that it may now reflect outdated information.
“I’m not completely finished with my inquiry in that regard,” Gallagher said.
Commissioner Travis Kavulla, R- Great Falls, said he believes the report is accurate.
“The report is a great report,” Kavulla said. “Our proceedings are weighed down with thousands of pages of data. The data expressed in that report are usually expressed in very complicated spreadsheets that are very difficult for the general public to wade through. That report was complied to make information transparent and easily available to the public.”
Kyla Maki, a lobbyists for the Montana Environmental Information Center, told the Tribune she overheard Gallagher after the hearing tell a lawmaker that “heads will roll” at the PSC over the report, which contradicted information presented by NorthWestern Energy.
“It appears the PSC chairman, supporting a bill that PSC has not taken a position on, used his power as chairman to remove information from the PSC’s website that that didn’t support his position on a bill,” Maki said.
Gallagher denied that he had the report removed for political reasons.
“If I found that the information on the website was in error, there would be a reckoning, absolutely,” Gallagher said. “My primary concern as the chairman was the accuracy of the information that we’re putting out to the public.”
Gallagher said if senior PSC staff verify the report’s accuracy it will return to the PSC’s website.
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