NorthWestern Energy sues Montana utility regulators


NorthWestern Energy is asking a district judge to undo a state decision lumping the utility in with renewable energy developers when it comes to power contracts.

At issue is a Public Service Commission decision to shorten contract lengths for all power purchase agreements involving regulated utilities. The commission in October voted to cut contract lengths from 25 years to 15. The concern, commissioners said, was that NorthWestern’s customers risked being locked into long-term prices for power that over time would prove more expensive than the free market.

The utility’s petition for judicial review was filed Dec. 22 in Lewis and Clark County District Court, along with a petition on similar grounds concerning a PSC action involving NorthWestern and a Billings solar farm.

Energy prices are half what they were just five years ago, and 30-year contracts for power approved in 2013 now have NorthWestern customers paying higher than market prices.

NorthWestern objects to the way it was folded into the contract debate. The PSC started out trimming contract lengths for small, renewable energy projects that qualify under state and federal law to sell power to NorthWestern and other regulated utilites at a set rate for a set term.

Renewable energy developers have filed their own lawsuit against the PSC.

In the process of cutting contract lengths for the small qualifying facilities, the PSC decided to apply the same terms to NorthWestern for sake of symmetry. The utility was blindsided by its inclusion and argues there was no due process.
Nowhere in state or federal law are regulated utilities treated the same way as the small energy developers, NorthWestern contends. Being lumped in the qualifying facilities has harmed the utilities’ ability to buy power and develop its own energy projects, NorthWestern argues.