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Montana’s Clean Energy Future Should Not Be Financed on the Backs of Ratepayers

Commissioner Tony O’Donnell, Montana Public Service Commission


7-25-17
Imagine that you were forced to sign a 25 year contract for gas for your car at 3-4 times the market price.  That’s the exact situation NorthWestern Energy customers were facing without the Commission’s recent action to reduce the contract length and rate available to small renewable projects known as Qualifying Facilities (QFs).

As usual with actions that put ratepayers first, those who would have us promote renewables at any cost are hopping mad.

The Federal law that the Commission must follow, PURPA, clearly states that ratepayers shouldn’t pay more for one form of energy over another. That law also requires “long-term” contracts for renewable energy projects without providing a precise definition of “long-term.”

Until recently, contracts were set at a term of 25 years; however, the Commission received compelling testimony from the state consumer advocate, the Montana Consumer Counsel that fixed price, 25-year contracts were “excessively risky for customers.” My colleagues and I on the Commission agreed and earlier this month we voted to reduce contracts to a maximum of ten years.

The price that NorthWestern must pay for the power supplied by renewables is ultimately born by the consumer. The PSC’s charge is to ensure that customers, you and I, pay no more for alternative energy than we otherwise would for power generated by the utility or purchased from the open market. The longer the length of the contract the less accurate these calculations become, and the greater the likelihood that consumers will wind up paying too much.

Case in point, last June the Commission blocked a proposal by a handful of developers to build 130 megawatts of new solar generating capacity at a highly inflated rate of $66 per megawatt hour, roughly 3 times the market price today. That action is projected to save ratepayers an estimated $65 million over the next 25 years based on a forecast of current market prices. 

Shorter contracts provide a benefit to both consumers and QFs by ensuring that rates paid to developers more accurately reflect the actual cost of generating electricity.

Recently circulated stories have strongly suggested that the Commission’s actions were mean to “kill” wind and solar development in the state. There is no truth whatsoever to this claim. In fact, the Commission recognizes that the risk associated with locking customers into long-term rates is universal and that’s why we voted to apply the exact same treatment to NorthWestern, as well as QFs.

To be sure, renewable development brings jobs and dollars to the local economy, but such concerns are outside the scope of the Commission’s mandate to select the least cost resource to reliably serve customers. Federal law clearly prohibits the Commission from favoring one form of generation over any other. Such incentives are the sole privilege of the Montana Legislature or Congress.

In the coming weeks the Commission will undoubtedly face motions to reconsider our decision.  I will approach those requests with an open mind and will happily reverse my decision if presented with compelling new information, but any proposal must square with the legal requirement that rates remain neutral for customers.  Montana’s clean energy future must not be financed on the backs of ratepayers.

Let’s raise the level of campaign discourse



Oct 27. 2016


I have to admit that this has been a most unusual campaign.  There has been almost no discussion by my opponents on issues of substance.  Nor have they challenged of any of my positions or votes while serving on the PSC – something I would have welcomed talking about.

Instead, I have one opponent (Ms. Cooper) who insults my integrity, saying I have a “cozy” relationship with NorthWestern Energy, because I apparently accepted a small, fully reported donation from their employee PAC 12 years ago as a candidate for legislature.  Cooper claims to be the only honest candidate in the race, because she refuses PAC donations.  Yet when the Montana Conservation Voters PAC gave her a sizable in-kind donation in the form of a professional campaign school (valued at $225 over the minimal registration fee), she showed no intention of reporting it.  Indeed, when MCV did the right thing, informing her that it was an in-kind PAC donation, Cooper went ballistic, filing a complaint against MCV with the Commissioner of Political Practices.  This “honest” candidate clearly wanted to completely hide the donation from public disclosure.

Then there is Rep. Noonan, whose main charge against me is that I am (in his words) “a dangerous deregulator.”  He’s not specific, so I have no idea what he’s talking about, because the Public Service Commission has no authority to deregulate anything.  The deregulation of Montana Power was done by the legislature, and I opposed it at the time.  If he’s referring to my commission votes allowing competition in passenger service (UBER) and approving consumer choice in garbage collection where monopoly now exists, I’m guilty as charged!  But I hardly consider that dangerous.  Apparently Pat does, since he voted against the popular UBER bill in the House.

For those who are confused by all of this, let me offer a straightforward description of my first term on the PSC.  In every way and at every opportunity, I stood for the consumers of this state.  I approached my work as a firm and fair regulator, always keeping the rate-payers’ interests forefront in my mind.  On many key issues and key votes, I provided bold leadershjp in defense of the consumer, opposing sizeable rate hikes that previous commissions would have passively approved.     

The PSC has been doing a very good job, resulting in residential electricity rates that in real, inflation-adjusted terms, have risen just 2.6% for NWE in the past four years, and declined 2% for MDU.  (Ms. Cooper’s assertion that rates have increased 15% is pure, politically-driven rubbish.)  Meanwhile, gas rates have declined for those utilities during that period, 21% and 17% respectively. Yet there is much work left to be done, as we face both the challenges and the exciting opportunities that lie before us.  Utility regulation needs a major overhaul, with more incentive-based, risk-sharing approaches replacing the old paradigm of passing through to the customer every risk, cost and operational mistake.       

As we face these critical issues that so greatly impact our families, our communities and our economy, I would be deeply honored to serve you for another four years on the PSC.

Roger Koopman

Public Service Commissioner, District 3

Congressman Zinke Is Leaving Men Behind

August 4, 2016
Opinion
by Josh Manning
This story first appeared at MTCowgirl.com
 
Manning is military veteran, and state civil rights investigator who lives in Helena. Follow him @joshuamanning23
 
Several months ago, I tied a suicide bombing in Iraq to the belief system among some of the new militia movement in the West. What I left out in that account, and that has now roared to the forefront of the moment, is the American soldier who died in that attack. His name was Humayun Khan, an Army Captain at the time, who gave his life to save so many others. That he, and his immediate family, end up inexorably tied into this bizarre Presidential cycle has taught me a lot about what leadership means in this moment.
 
I served with Captain Khan in Iraq. He was an officer in a mechanized infantry division, the First Infantry Division (aka the “Big Red One”) and was not in the infantry but rather an ordinance officer in another part of the unit meant for support personnel. In 2004, the Third Brigade Combat Team of the division deployed to Baqubah, Iraq and we took pride in our collective name, The Dukes of Diyala. It was, and still is, a restive province about an hour north of Baghdad with a population evenly divided among Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish Iraqis. Captain Khan, like the thousand or so rest of us stationed at FOB Warhorse, survived near daily mortar and rocket attacks along with the occasion car bombing at the gates.
 
I did not know him well because those of us with access to national secrets kept to ourselves and people seemed frightened of what we may know. But like anyone else in the unit, I would have done what I could to keep him safe. Captain Khan died on my 30th birthday, the same day I took the step to becoming a non-commissioned officer.
 
Like any of us, he pulled gate guard. One of my good friends was on duty that day, who was a specialist at the time (E-4 for military-minded folks). So normally on gate guard, the specialist is the one who deals with weird things while the officer-in-charge communicates or directs traffic. But not Captain Khan. He approached a rapidly approaching car because it was out of the norm.
 
He took those steps forward then it exploded. It was early morning, maybe around 8 a.m. I remember the sound of fighter jets dropping bombs on the date trees outside the base against those who launched for mortar and rocket crews and the sound on that June morning was louder. Just a massive, MASSIVE, explosion. There were chunks of engine block that flew over people walking to their duty stations on base. It was a major attack. Captain Khan, again a Muslim soldier, took the brunt of that hit for everyone at the gate. The killer was a Muslim too. Stop for a moment and consider this very important moment—an American Muslim soldier protected his fellow Americans, some Jewish like me, from the chaotic and indiscriminate deaths at the hands of a Muslim suicide bomber from another Arabic land. Captain Khan stepped up when many of us would have stepped back.
 
He had joined the Army to do anything than what he was doing at the gate that day. None of us considered those extra duties when we joined, but he, like every other soldier, went forward and did what he or she was supposed to do. On that day, he did even more than he needed to do. There are people alive today who owe their lives to him. No one from the Dukes of Diyala has forgotten that.
 
It was the first memorial service, or at least the first that I went to, for one of our dead. It was the usual mass formation where they call out the name, “Captain Khan, Captain Khan, Captain Humayun Khan” where no one answers and it just chills your soul. Out front is his rifle, boots, and name tag for all to see.
So when I heard his father speak all these years later, everything came back up. I thought it would end there. Who in their right mind would go up against all Captain Khan did and who would demean the parents that raised him to act in such a noble way?
 
Yet here we are. This election cycle has been anything but normal and we are all expected to just adjust to it that way. But that is not the right formula. Some things are beyond the pale and, again, demeaning the name of an American officer who gave his life to save countless others and the family who raised him is not the actions of a patriot. In the past few days, the Republican candidate for President has done just that. His surrogates have done the same and said even worse things in some cases.
 
Some thing are supposed to transgress politics. Many of my fellow Dukes of Diyala are staunch Republicans and have posted some awful memes about Democrats. Nonetheless, when Captain Khan’s family spoke up at the Democratic convention, we collectively went silent for awhile then talked about how wonderful it was to hear from his father and mother.
 
Bringing it back home, we have a Congressman who has run his entire campaign on the idea that he is an honorable officer. As an elite Navy SEAL (has he ever mentioned that before?), Congressman Ryan Zinke has a taller order than most to stand up for the military and its members. As someone who used his rank and privilege to gain public office, he should be out there at the forefront to defend the service of anyone who took the pledge for their nation.
 
After a few days, he posted a vague statement to his personal Facebook page but that’s it. Apparently in today’s world a U.S Congressman quietly posts to Facebook and calls that a media release. He did not actually call out the presidential candidate he has endorsed other than to say both the candidate and Hillary Clinton should apologize for offending the military and their families. I am not sure what the congressman is accusing Mrs. Clinton of having done. Then the rest of the post is about saving military lives when he has endorsed a candidate who wants to torture again, is easily prodded into taking overly aggressive actions, and has a national security team around him that spouts conspiracy theories. Sounds like a future of peace and prosperity, right?
 
So we will still wait for Congressman Zinke, for any Montana Republican, to say or write something in opposition to their candidate for the nation’s highest office because maybe that will tame him a bit more. But they will not because they want to ride this same wave through November. As Don Pogreba has so well outlined at Intelligent Discontent, the congressman has been absent from his duty and has fallen into this trap. He has left his fellow soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines behind. The Montana GOP is acting in the same role, especially those who went to their convention with smiles on their faces.
 
It is easy to fall in line and take the safest way out. Congressman Zinke has spoken out for this Presidential candidate of hate, he has appeared by his side, and made appeals to be his closest surrogate. At a moment when even some in the same party have spoken out against this new phase of the campaign to belittle a fallen soldier and his family, some have stepped forward. But Montana’s Congressman, Senator Daines, and every other Republican running for office have either not commented or threatened to cancel their endorsements.

So let me say something for the other party, the Democrats that are supposedly against the military and patriotism (you said as much on the Montana legislative floor in 2015, Representative Art Wittich, who also was front and center at the GOP convention to show his support). You do not own this nation, its flag, or service to this country. I, we, do not own it either. But let it be known that no matter what their underlying beliefs, we do not attack or belittle the service of dead Americans or their families. Any of you who support or defend the actions and beliefs of the Republican candidate for President of the United States lack a moral center. It is as simple as that. Remember this on that second Tuesday in November 2016.

A 56 Day Water Park - or - A Smarter Way

Editor's Note: To comment click on article title

Opinion

By Edward Banderob

"Wise Holistic Cost and Climatically Appropriate Utilization of Community Recreational Capital"


Facts - Climatic:
The climatic conditions in Butte are significantly different than where any other outside aquatics facility is located in Montana. In the last 20 years Butte has had an average of 2.6 days with day time high temperatures over 90 degrees, 22 days with night time low temperatures above 50 degrees, and a brisk wind most afternoons after 4:00 PM in the summer time.

Facts  - Outdoor Aquatics Usage;
The previous pool was open for the summer period, but only used an average of 56 days a year because it had to closed on inclement weather days due to the threat of lightning.

 

Facts - The YMCA has invested millions of dollars in its aquatic facility.  The Y is experienced in operating an aquatic facility, and has an experienced life-guard and teaching staff.  The Y has over 1,000 children a year participate in their aquatics programs.  the Y is open to Partnering with the City-County on an outdoor pool.

Yes we can all agree that our community needs a summer time family friendly aquatics feature at StoddenPark for the smaller children and tweenagers, but lets be realistic.


But; Isn't there a "Smarter Way"? Isn't there a Wiser Holistic More Cost and Climatically Appropriate Way to Spend the Limited Community Recreational Capital"  then to dump it all into a 56 day (70 less closures for lightning threats) usage Water Park? When we were told that the older teenagers are not going to use it anyway. Where will we get the Recreational Capital to develop the kind of Youth Recreational Facility at the MT Con that the older teens and maybe even the college students would use?

Wouldn’t it be smarter to spend $2M or $3M on a Family Friendly Glorified Splash Pad with a couple Water Slides ending in Splash/Plunge Pools?  That could be enclosed, with Plexiglas sides and a retractable roof, and be less costly to operate?

Wouldn’t it be smarter to spend $2M or $3M to create a year around Water-Snow-Ice Park at the Mt Con? With more extreme  water-snow-ice slides and dirt/snow terrain features at the MT Con that would be an attraction for older teens and maybe even some of the sports enthusiast at MTech.

Wouldn’t it be smarter to enter into a Public-Private Project at the YMCA to build a Gym or an Outdoor Pool for $3M to $4M of taxpayer monies matched by $3 or $4M Private Monies?

A NO on a $7.2M Bond, $8.7M Public Monies plus $350K a year 56 Day Water Park would be a YES for "A Smarter Way" usage of our limited Community Recreational Capital. That would really give our community something unique that people from out of town that already have their own water parks might want to come to.

What do you think? Write your letters. Post your opinion on this site, and on your own Facebook page.

Sub: Same Oh, Same Oh

Here we go again with the Same Oh, Same Oh, not taking into consideration that the climatic condition in Butte are significantly different than those of any other water facility in Montana, even from those of Fairmont and Anaconda. In the last 20 years we have an average of 2.6 days with day time high temperatures over 90 degrees, 22 days with night time low temperatures above 50 degrees, and a brisk wind most afternoons after 4:00 PM.

I don’t get it!  We were told that the last bond for $7.5M failed because it included extra amenities other than the water park, so we are now proposing an $8.7M bond, a $1.2M increase without those same amenities.

The people I talked to did not vote NO because of the extra amenities, they voted NO because of $7.5M price tag for a 56 day usage facility.

So I ask; does Butte really need another “pool” at Stodden Park? 

Or does Butte just need an aquatic recreational feature at Stodden Park?

A glorified Splash Pad with a couple water slides ending in a splash pool that could be built for a couple million and enclosed for another million or so with one of those Canadian bubbles that would be less costly to operate and be complementary to the two swimming pools we already have in Butte.

A semi outside aquatics feature similar to the Indoor Water Parks, at the Billings Reef, the Mandan ND Mall, and/or the Des Moines Iowa Ramada Tropics Resort.

Some questions that were not asked by the Commissioners at the presentation:

- How was the survey conducted?

- Who was surveyed, only the aquatics community?

- Was it a random sample survey that included the tax payers?

- How much did the indoor facility considered loose?

- How much more was it’s lose than the lose of the facility proposed?

- Was the use of the Canadian bubble considered to improve comfort in windy condition and to extend the season?

- What type of facilities do attracted the older teenagers?
- Was a wind shield fence considered?

I still question the legality of the procedure that is being used to determine the aquatics feature for Stodden Park.

The “what” and “where” are policy decisions.

The B-SB City-County Charter stipulates that this Council of Commissioners shall determine policy.

Further more the B-SB- City-County Charter mandates that the Council of Commissioners shall authorize Community Councils to advise this Council of Commissioners.

Therefore any consideration, and/or decision made by the Council of Commissioners is most probably not legal until the Community Council provision of the City-County Charter is fulfilled.  

To be in compliance with the B-SB Charter the B-SB Council of Commissioners should be; Calling For, Selecting, and Authorizing, a Community Council, to submit a consensual community advisory recommendation for Recognition and Consideration by the Council of Commissioners.   

What is your opinion?

Ed Banderob
2601 Grand Ave., Butte MT

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