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Recently, the Montana Standard published an article with the online version headlined “NorthWestern Energy gets a pass on Montana law requiring support of small renewable energy projects.” The “gets a pass” phrasing came directly from the opening sentence of the article written by Billings Gazette reporter Tom Lutey.

Neither the headline nor the reporter is correct in drawing such a conclusion. Every year NorthWestern Energy invests thousands of dollars and hundreds of employee hours trying to comply with an unwieldy and unrealistic requirement that is just a small part of the broader Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) established by the Montana Legislature in 2005.

NorthWestern has been in compliance with the broader RPS since its beginning, which requires investor-owned utilities to have a minimum of 15 percent of their electric generation come from renewable sources such as wind or solar production. Further, we are prohibited from including the electricity produced by our clean hydro power generation. If we did, over 60 percent of our electric generation would come from non-carbon producing generation.

Each year we undertake an open and public process to seek Community Renewable Energy Projects (CREP). For most years, no projects have complied with the dual criteria of majority ownership by Montanans and having costs comparable to other sources of electricity available to NorthWestern (this criteria is in Montana law).

When we are not able to identify qualified projects, we ask the PSC for a waiver of the CREP requirement. The CREP law specifically recognizes that CREP projects may not be available and provides the utility the right to request a waiver. The PSC has granted those waiver requests in the past and did so again in September.

In this process, neither NorthWestern nor the PSC is guilty of “not living up to the law” as the article alleges. The overall tone of the article implies that NorthWestern is purposely not complying with the requirement, and is aided in that pursuit by the PSC. That’s nonsense. We have worked hard to comply with the CREP statute, while protecting our customers from paying too much.

The reality is the CREP requirement is unworkable and creates unnecessary costs for customers and risk to NorthWestern. It needs to be revised or scrapped. The PSC proposed revisions to CREP during the 2017 legislative session. The proposal was approved by the House and Senate but unfortunately killed by a governor’s veto.

NorthWestern strongly supports renewable energy, when it makes sense. On behalf of our customers we have invested more than $1 billion in clean energy in recent years and more than 60 percent of the electricity we deliver to our Montana customers comes from carbon-free hydro, wind and solar generation, a number we should all be proud of. We continue to work on developing additional renewable generation for our customers that is reliable and affordable.

Energy issues can be complex and confusing. Factual reporting on these issues is critical if we are to have constructive conversations about our shared energy future.

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John Hines is NorthWestern Energy's Vice President for Energy Supply and Montana Government Affairs.

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