Montana should keep requiring utilities to procure 15 percent of their power from renewable sources such as wind by 2015 – no more or no less – members of an interim committee of the Legislature decided Monday.
“We believe our standard of 15 and 15 is a good number,” said Sen. Cliff Larson, D-Missoula, chairman of the Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee.
The committee, made up of four Democrats and four Republicans, voted 8-0 at a meeting in Helena to give final approval to a study of the effectiveness of the Renewable Portfolio Standard completed with the help of the Legislature Services Division.
The standard requires public utilities to obtain 15 percent of their retail customer sales from renewable resources by 2015, and it should remain unchanged, according to a recommendation in the report that Sen. Ed Buttrey, a Republican committee member from Great Falls, called the most significant in the study.
“As a Legislature, as we make data-driven decisions, I think it will have a large impact on the Legislature,” Buttrey said of the committee’s decision approving the report and the decision affirming the current renewable standard.
The study, Buttrey added, will provide solid data for keeping the current standard to those who supported increasing the standard, and those who supported a decrease.
“I think it will go a long way to the standard remaining as-is in the next session,” he said.
In a state where extraction of coal and other carbon-based products is a large part of the economy, it’s notable that Montana achieved the 15-renewable percent standard in 2013, Larson said.
“We’ve struck a balance that I think takes a lot of sting out of the arguments that we had in the beginning, that this was an unknown standard,” Larson said. “We beat the deadline, and met the standard two years early.”
The 2013 Montana Legislature asked the interim committee to analyze the Montana Renewable Power Production and Rural Economic Development Act, focusing on the economic impacts of the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), the environmental impacts of the standard and the impacts the RPS has had on Montana consumers.
The act was passed in 2005.
At the time, proponents of the legislation argued that additional renewable resources were needed to diversify electricity supply, reduce greenhouse gases and other air emissions to improve public health, and to support jobs- and revenue-creating local renewable projects, according to committee’s study.
The first compliance requirement, 5 percent, began in 2008.
The study found that the renewable energy standard has contributed to new electric generation in Montana, and has had a positive economic impact on rural communities during construction and beyond. Property taxes have increased in those communities where development has occurred, it says.
For example, the 90-turbine Judith Gap wind farm pays about $1.5 million to Wheatland County in yearly property taxes and more than $400,000 in annual lease payments to landowners, the report says. Judith Gap also provides $55,000 annually to the state school trust.
The renewable portfolio standard, while beneficial, has not led to the replacement of existing power generation facilities, the study found.
Kyla Maki, clean energy director at the Montana Environmental Information Center, was pleased with the vote.
“We’re happy they recognized the economic benefit of renewable energy,” Maki said.
Maki added that committee members missed an opportunity to recommend an increase in the requirement beyond 15 percent, especially considering the economic benefits noted in the report and another finding that the standards have had a negligible impact on ratepayers.
“Based on that, it’s puzzling they didn’t then proceed to say more of a good thing is a great thing,” Maki said.
Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, said the wind industry has grown on its own and saw no reason to decrease or increase the standard.
“On the flip side of that, if the federal government continues to clamp down on coal and coal-fire generation, there won’t be any other opportunity but to go to wind generation,” Olson said. “The federal government is going to pick who the winners are and who the losers are.”
There was disagreement on the committee about the renewable energy standard’s contribution to air quality, according to the study.
Some members felt strongly that renewable energy projects offset the use of fossil-fuel based energy and contribute to cleaner air. But others argued that the review of air quality impacts was inconclusive or negligible.
Committee members also couldn’t agree on another issue involving energy and the environment.
Olson recommended that the committee write a letter to the EPA explaining how the agency’s proposed rule requiring emissions reductions from electricity generating plants would affect ratepayers, jobs and government revenue in Montana. EPA’s clean power plan would require a 21 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.
“Where the EPA is looking at curtailing coal use by one-third across the country, that’s going to have a tremendous impact on Montana as well,” Olson said.
The proposal failed on a 4-4 party-line vote, with Republicans supporting the letter and Democrats voting no.
“I think the Democrats believed we didn’t need to respond to a preliminary comment period, and the Republicans thought we did,” Larson said.
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