PSC and NorthWestern Energy: Too cozy, too costly for Montanans

November 13, 2023 4:25 am

Part of the crowd holding signs at a protest for a gas-fired power plant proposed by NorthWestern Energy in Laurel, Montana. The protest happened on Feb. 10, 2022 on the lawn of the Yellowstone County Courthouse in Billings (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

As with most of Northwestern Energy’s captive customers, I was alarmed to hear that the Montana Public Service Commission granted the monopoly utility a 28% rate increase.  I thought that an increase of this magnitude must be, in part, due to the exorbitant expense of funding the methane-fired plant currently being built in Laurel.  But no, those costs are not even included… yet. 

It seems clear that the cozy relationship between Northwestern Energy and the PSC is not benefiting the public interest and has greatly increased the costs of energy to the average user.  Something has to be done.

As we all know, in a free-enterprise system such as ours, any public utility that rises to the status of a monopoly must submit to some form of public supervision in order to do business.  Transparency, public input and independent oversight are necessary to ensure that all public interests are heard, respected and acted upon.   NorthWestern’s actions lately have not been transparent.  Deals made behind closed doors with corporate entities, with little input from other concerned groups, appear to be a deliberate effort to limit rate hikes for the corporate world and pass the majority of the hikes onto regular residential customers. Furthermore, it is apparent that the PSC is not acting as an “independent” commission as NorthWestern almost always gets what it asks for. 

The PSC is supposed to balance the interests of energy corporations with that of captive customers who are forced to buy power from such monopoly utilities.  It has not done so.

This past fall, the PSC held listening sessions across the state to obtain “public input” about NorthWestern’s plans for our state.  I put this in quotes because it was clear that the PSC commissioners, although supposedly listening, were not hearing what was said. Only two commissioners showed up to the Billings session, and they seemed bored with the whole process. If they were actively listening they would have heard Montanans loudly expressing frustration that NorthWestern continues to saddle us with expensive, polluting energy while ignoring the more affordable, reliable, and safer clean energy that other states are investing in.

For example, the Montana Free Press recently reported that NorthWestern’s captive customers are paying 73% more than our neighbors in Idaho pay their utility.

The Laurel methane-fired plant offers a disturbing example of how NorthWestern operates.  Virtually no meaningful public input was gathered. Permits and zoning requirements were overlooked. It seems clear that the monopoly corporation is trying to force through this expensive $283 million plant to maximize return on investments for stockholders and enable excessive bonuses for executives.   

Once this dangerous plant becomes operational, our bills will go up dramatically once again, and for what? We’ll be paying through the nose for a plant that the state of Montana documents will pollute our community with 50 tons of carcinogenic formaldehyde every year, and hundreds of tons of other dangerous pollutants will threaten our health and spoil our environment. NorthWestern will soon ask us to pay for this monstrosity – including its maintenance and its upkeep.  

We do not support its reckless behavior as it results in excessive energy costs while also harming our health and degrading our climate.   We can hold those PSC commissioners accountable for their lack of good faith oversight. We don’t support them giving NorthWestern a blank check to do whatever it wants.

We know that if we work together, we can put an end to this kind of corruption and build more resilient communities where we can flourish and thrive together.   

Edward Barta is a Billings resident, NorthWestern Energy ratepayer, and Vice-Chair of Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture organization.

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