Today, solar advocates asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to restore solar growth in Montana and counter an emerging utility tactic to stymie competitive renewable energy development in Montana and nationwide. The Montana Environmental Information Center and Vote Solar, represented by Earthjustice, are challenging the Montana Public Services Commission’s recent decision to suspend the payment of standard rate to small solar energy developers in Montana, which has stalled development of dozens of solar projects queued for development. You can read the full filing here (PDF). 

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“Public utility commissions across the country are making decisions today about whether we move toward a clean energy future or continue to rely on dirty coal,” said Earthjustice Attorney Jenny Harbine. “By stalling competitive solar production in Montana, the Montana Commission is killing clean energy jobs and preventing solar energy from entering the competitive market.” 

The law at issue is the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), which aims to encourage renewable energy production and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. A critical component of PURPA requires utilities to purchase energy from clean sources like wind and solar at the same price that the utilities would pay to build new conventional fossil power plants, otherwise known as “avoided cost.” As solar has become increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels in recent years, PURPA has been a growing driver of wholesale solar development, particularly in emerging markets such as Montana, but also in more mature markets like North Carolina, which has more PURPA-driven solar development than any other state. In response, utilities have sought to weaken PURPA requirements in many states, including North Carolina, Utah, Idaho and Oregon. Montana is the newest fight on this frontier.

 “It appears that this well-established law – PURPA – is now the latest front in the ongoing fight for renewable energy progress,” said Adam Browning, Executive Director of Vote Solar. “We need FERC to uphold this key tenet of competitive renewables development so that we can continue to build our new energy economy and improve health, security and well-being in Montana and all across the country.”

This FERC filing was prompted by the Montana Commission’s recent decision to grant a request by NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest utility, to eliminate the standard rate for purchases of solar energy projects. According to Northwestern Energy’s own estimations, the decision immediately impacted approximately 135 MW of solar projects in late-stage development. 

"Northwestern Energy is saying the sky is falling in Montana because several solar developers want to build small scale solar plants and create jobs across the state. All we are asking of FERC is that Montana obey the law and let the sun shine for Montana's energy consumers," said Brian Fadie, Clean Energy Program Director at MEIC.

The solar advocates are asking FERC to enforce federal law and rule on the illegality of the Montana Commission’s decision and to enforce PURPA in Montana and elsewhere.