Solar energy up for debate in Helena

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“Solar Guy” Brad Van Wert’s series of policy talks comes as a bevy of bills are being pushed in the state House and Senate to reshape the landscape of incentives for renewable-energy generation in Montana, particularly solar producers who use net metering.

Here’s a brief look at some of the legislation that would impact the state’s policies for net metering:

Senate Bill 7

Sponsored by Sen. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, this bill could have a similar effect to Senate Bill 78.

It would require that net-metering customers “may not be subsidized” by other utility customers, which opponents to the bill interpreted as an attempt to reduce net-metering credits to the wholesale rate.

However, it does not explicitly address the retail-versus-wholesale argument, and instead directs the Public Service Commission to determine whether those customer-generators are in fact being subsidized.

It won the support of Montana’s two main utility companies, and was passed by the Senate last week on a 31-18 vote.

The House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee will hear the bill today at 3 p.m.

Senate Bill 12

Also sponsored by Connell, this measure would direct the Public Service Commission to determine whether new equipment and “smart-grid” technology should be required for net-metering customers.

After receiving public input on the issue, the commission would then establish how the costs of the new equipment should be shared by the customers and utility customers.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill Wednesday, sending it to the House for consideration.

Senate Bill 154

This measure would eliminate several existing incentives for net-metering systems.

Sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, it proposes removing those systems from the state’s definition of “alternative energy systems,” making them ineligible for an alternative-energy loan program and an energy grant program administered by the state.

It would also make them ineligible for existing tax credits and tax exemptions for net-metering systems.

Lang’s bill is scheduled for a Feb. 7 hearing before the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

House Bill 34

Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, is carrying this bill, which would raise the maximum amount of solar production connected to the grid for “government entities.”

It defines those as facilities owned by local governments, school districts, the state university system and state, tribal and federal agencies.

Net-metering customers are currently restricted to a 50-kilowatt cap. Zolnikov’s bill would raise the cap on public customer-generators to 250 kilowatts.

The House energy committee has not yet taken action on the bill, after holding a hearing at the beginning of January.

House Bill 52

Zolnikov’s other bill would grandfather in the value of credits for existing net-metering customers if the Public Service Commission establishes a new class of customers for those distributed generators.

The “grandfather clause” would apply to those customers who hook into the grid up to the time the commission establishes a new class, which would likely include a change in the rate.

This measure is also awaiting action following an energy committee hearing at the beginning of the session.

House Bill 219

Under this measure, the Public Service Commission required to consider a new customer class for net-metering customers when their contribution to a utility’s total production reaches a trigger point.

That would occur either when those customers’ contribution exceeds 1 percent of the total or when the commission determines the new rate class is “in the public interest.”

Before establishing the new class, the utility would have to conduct a cost-benefit study on the proposed rate class, then submit it to the commission. The utility-regulating panel would then evaluate the study and consult with independent experts before establishing the new rate class.

It also includes the “grandfather clause” similar to Zolnikov’s House Bill 52, which would lock in existing net-metering customers at their original rates.

Sponsored by Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, the bill is before the House energy committee, which has yet to take up the bill after it was heard in January.

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