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Renewable energy rule the focus of debate

A 2005 Montana law aimed at stimulating construction of renewable power plants – and boosting the economies of rural communities – by requiring big utilities to buy some electricity from renewable sources is under mandated review.

But the joint legislative panel charged with studying the efficacy of the Renewable Portfolio Standard was unable to make recommendations from which the 2015 Legislature could consider whether to change – or scrap – the law.

In a Thursday session at Great Falls College Montana State University, the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee reviewed a draft analysis of the Renewable Power Production and Rural Economic Development Act, which requires utilities to acquire renewable energy equal to at least:

• 5 percent of retail electricity sales in 2008.

• 10 percent in 2010.

• 15 percent in 2015.

The analysis by the Legislative Services Division examines the economic and environmental impact resulting from the RPS system. The committee voted to study the report further and solicit public input before considering the RPS rule again at its September meeting, and generating recommendations then.

The Legislative Services Division report received responses to its survey from 10 power plants – three hydropower and seven wind power. Respondents generated a total of 482 construction jobs and 26.5 full-time permanent jobs at the plants.

The wind farms reported making total lease payments of up to $1.12 million and property tax payments of up to $2.44 million in 2012.

Another goal of the renewable power act was to reduce the use of fossil fuels by large utilities. Of those, PPL Montana of Billings; NorthWestern Energy of Sioux Falls, S.D.; Black Hills Power of Rapid City, S.D.; and Avista Corp. of Spokane, Wash., reported either no reduction in fossil-fuel use or, in NorthWestern’s case, stated “the effects cannot be precisely determined.”

MDU Resources Group Inc. of Bismarck, N.D., said the standard has reduced the utility’s dependence on fossil fuels “to a minor degree.”

Great Falls resident and former legislator Sue Dickinson spoke in favor of renewable-energy power plants, calling for reduction in fossil-fuel use. She said high levels of mercury in hair samples have been found at Colstrip, site of a cluster of the state’s biggest coal-fired power plants, and residents of Colstrip are “concerned about somewhat rare forms of brain cancer in the community.”

Kyla Maki, clean energy program director at the Montana Environmental Information Center, said “environmental impacts should be included and built into models used for resource planning.”

Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, said the Renewable Portfolio Standard has become a polarizing issue. “There has been discussion to expand (renewable requirement) to 20-25 percent … the other side saying ‘we’re going to repeal it, what has the RPS done?’” Olson said

“Has it created a panacea of employment and opportunity?” Olson asked. “I don’t see any of that. … Has it reached its stated purpose? What is its stated purpose? How many jobs has it created? Not very many. Do we need to increase (renewable requirement)?”

He suggested rather than jump on either extreme bandwagon, the Renewable Portfolio Standard be left as is.

Lawrence Cordell, an economist for the Consumer Counsel, said adding electricity generated by the Spion Kop wind farm in Judith Basin County increases consumer bills by 3 percent.

Experts note that utilities’ electricity costs vary by whether they acquire long-term purchase agreements or buy on the spot market, where prices can vary more. But hydropower and wind power can remove some variance because they have no fuel costs.

Part of Thursday’s discussion was whether some renewable energy projects, most notably the Judith Gap Wind Energy Center, should be included as being generated by RPS’ lure of requiring big utilities to buy their power, noting some already were being built or planned before the renewable requirement was put in place. Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, said “which (renewable power plants) are here because of RPS? Only 5 responded they are here because of it.”

Sen. Robyn Driscoll said she disagreed with statements that the renewable portfolio requirement didn’t improve the state’s utility mix. Even counting, say, only Spion Kop and the Turnbull Hydro facility in Teton County, those “53 megawatts total (are) 53 megawatts not producing harmful emissions.”