PSC commissioner blasts judge who found board biased against solar power

PSC Commissioner Roger Koopman

(Montana Free Press) Montana Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman this week criticized a state judge who overruled the utility regulation commission’s decision in a solar rate case last month and said statements by elected commissioners indicated the body was biased against solar development.

The comments from Koopman, a Republican from Bozeman, came during a July 16 commission work session on ongoing litigation around an 80-megawatt solar farm proposed near Billings. He said he was skeptical the judge had a better handle on what constituted fair rate terms than the elected commission and its professional staff.

“I am sensitive to the fact that this judge essentially indicated that we arrived at these things because we are biased. I come to the conclusion, on the record, that it’s much more likely that the judge came to his ruling on the basis of bias,” he said.

“To make conclusions here that ‘Gosh we got it all wrong because a judge thinks that we’re biased,’” Koopman continued, “I think it’s the example of when you point the finger, there’s three pointed back at you.”

State District Court Judge James Manley of Polson issued an order in June agreeing with solar advocates, who argued that newspaper op-eds and a 2017 “hot mic” comment were evidence that the utility commission had treated them unfairly.

At issue in the case are the terms of contracts for MTSUN and other companies that want to develop solar power projects and sell energy into the Montana power grid, most of which is controlled by NorthWestern Energy. Solar developers are guaranteed the ability to sell power to the grid by a 1970s-era federal law, but it’s up to the utility commission to referee disputes over contract lengths and rates.

Solar developers say setting rates too low makes their projects unviable. Because NorthWestern would pass higher solar power rates on to consumers in the form of higher bills, the commission has argued that lower rates protect Montana consumers from paying to subsidize renewable energy development.

In the June ruling, Manley told the commission to revise several aspects of its rate-setting decision, including contract length and whether pricing should account for solar energy being carbon neutral. NorthWestern has appealed his order to the Montana Supreme Court.

In a legal filing at the state supreme court, NorthWestern attorneys argue that the judge “mistakenly focused on setting rates that encourage renewable development while overlooking the burden on NorthWestern and its customers for the expenses of that development.”

Among the newspaper op-ed columns mentioned in the case was a 2016 piece published by several Montana newspapers where Koopman criticized renewable energy sources as less reliable than coal and natural gas plants and called it an “unsettled question” whether CO2 emissions are “in net effect, a climatic calamity or an earth-greening benefit.”

Research by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists estimates that unmitigated climate change will cost the U.S. economy “hundreds of billions” of dollars annually by the end of the century.

This story originally appeared online at Montana Free Press. Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer based in Helena. He is the lead reporter on the Long Streets Project and also covers state policy for MTFP. He has previously worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact him at edietrich@mtfp.org or 406-544-1074.