PSC should promote state’s alternative energy | Editorials

A microphone left on during a break in a recent Montana Public Service Commission meeting recorded a conversation that suggests commissioners are actively seeking to kill solar energy projects with low guaranteed rates and contracts too short in duration for investors to recover their money.

The conversation recorded between Commissioner Bob Lake and a commission staff member seemed to convey the commission’s desire to kill solar energy projects. The commission suspended guaranteed rates for solar energy producers — rates set by the PSC itself four years ago. The commission also capped lengths on contracts for solar energy at 10 years — less than what solar energy producers say is needed for them to raise capital for their projects.

The hot mic recorded Lake telling the staffer concerning solar projects, “Well, the 10-year might do it if the price doesn’t. And at this low price, I can’t imagine anyone getting into it.”

Commissioners have said they took the actions to protect consumers from what they see as exorbitantly high prices for solar power. But the conversation caught on tape indicates the actions may actually be aimed at just killing solar energy development altogether.

It’s very discouraging, to say the least, to learn our elected utility regulators may be actively engaged in enacting policy that will slam the door on an entire form of alternative energy. This kind of backward thinking will ultimately hurt Montana energy consumers and Montana’s economy.

It was reported in January by Business Insider that alternative energy — mostly wind and solar — employs 4 million people nationwide and that job growth in this sector is 12 times that of the economy as a whole.

Eastern Montana has an abundance of both wind and sunlight. Public policy should be aimed at promoting wind and solar energy development. And there is a lot of interest. Multiple solar energy firms are proposing nearly 100 projects in the state. North Carolina-based FLS Energy alone has told the commission it would spend about $100 million on its 14 planned projects in the coming months.

But lowered rates and contract-length caps could bring all that to a halt.

Public service commissioners should be looking out for the interests of today’s consumers. But they also need to look out for the consumers and the economy of the future. The PSC needs to reconsider its recently adopted policies and find ways to promote — not discourage — alternative energy development.

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