Renewable energy activists urged Montana regulators on Thursday to reject a utility's request to add a charge for homeowners who generate surplus electricity from their own solar panels.
Over the past two decades, about 2,300 NorthWestern Energy customers in Montana installed their own solar panels. When those panels generate more electricity than a customer uses, the surplus power is fed into the electric grid and earns the customer a credit on their bill in a process known as net-metering.
NorthWestern spokeswoman Jo Dee Black said the new charge would ensure net-metering customers pay their fair share of service costs. Customers with solar panels already in place would be exempted.
But critics told the Montana Public Service Commission the proposal would kill a burgeoning rooftop solar industry, at a time when they said climate change has made it urgent to find less polluting forms of power than coal and other fossil fuels.
NorthWestern's proposal is part of a broader request by the South Dakota-based utility to raise rates in Montana, where it has more than 300,000 residential customers.
The charge for new net-metering customers would be about $50 a month based on average customer demand, Public Service Commission chief legal counsel Justin Kreske said. The proposal also would reduce the rate at which new net-metering customers pay and are credited for power, from 11.4 cents per kilowatt hour to about 6.6 cents.
Helena resident Patricia Bik said she plans to install solar panels on the roof of her home, but the new charge could make it cost-prohibitive.
"We are standing up for solar," Bik said. "We feel it's incredibly important that we work toward a sustainable future and keep fossil fuel-generated electricity to a minimum."
Bik is a board member for the Northern Plains Resource Council, one of several conservation groups organizing opposition to NorthWestern's request. She was among about two dozen speakers who criticized the net-metering charge during a Thursday hearing on the rate change proposal in Helena.
Other speakers said the utility appeared intent on killing off any home-grown competition from within its customer ranks to bolster its profits.
Northwestern's Black said that customers who generate their own power also rely on the grid when they can't produce enough to meet their needs. The requested charge and rate change would help cover transmission and distribution costs and make sure those are not borne by other customers, Black said.
Current net-metering customers pay about 65 percent of their service costs, she said. "That means non net-metering customers are having a higher rate to pay for grid costs," Black said.
Public Service Commissioners are prohibited under their rules from expressing opinions on the rate case while it's still pending, spokesman Drew Zinecker said.
The net-metering charge was included in NorthWestern's request last year to increase rates for customers. The utility originally sought increases totaling more than $34 million annually. But it reached an agreement earlier this month with the Montana Consumer Counsel and other groups that reduced the figure to $6.5 million annually.
A decision by the Public Service Commission is expected in late summer or early fall.
In a separate case, NorthWestern Energy is asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve a nearly $40 million annual rate increase for the use of its transmission lines.
The utility hasn't filed a transmission rate case since 2006, Mike Cashell, NorthWestern's vice president of transmission, told The Billings Gazette. The company says it has invested $416 million in its transmission facilities over the past 13 years, and those costs aren't being fully recovered under its current rates.
Renewable energy businesses have asked to intervene in the transmission rate case, saying they plan projects in Montana if the transmission costs are competitive.