Getting Mauled by a Monopoly Utility

Nearly a half-century ago, the Montana Power Company was determined to turn our state into “the boiler room for the nation” with vast plans for Colstrip’s coal-fired power plants and the massive strip mines to feed them. Local ranchers, farmers, landowners and environmentalists teamed up to oppose the mega-mines and pollution-belching plants and the newly formed Northern Plains Resource Council put out a bumper sticker that asked: “Has Montana Power got you by the bulbs?” Now NorthWestern Energy, Montana Power’s successor in interest as a monopoly utility, is putting the squeeze on Montanans once again.

The sad story of how Montana Power committed corporate suicide is well known. After building a vertically integrated utility empire entirely paid for by consumers, the utility’s less-than-brilliant leaders decided to sell off its hydroelectric dams and transmission lines and use the proceeds to become a telecom. In the process, both the utility and the telecom businesses wound up on the rocks and Montanans wound up with NorthWestern Energy, an out-of-state corporation, owning the energy sources and transmission lines that 370,000 Montanans rely on to power their homes and businesses. In the meantime, our power costs went from the cheapest in the region to some of the most expensive. What a deal!

But apparently that wasn’t good enough for NorthWestern Energy and after its failed legislative attempt to stick Montanans with the hundreds of millions in costs to buy, run and close Colstrip’s Unit 4, the corporation has decided to target Montanans who invest in rooftop solar in an attempt to make it uneconomical while heaping vast overcharges on those customers for the exact same energy they deliver to non-solar homes and businesses.

Montana has a Public Service Commission that is supposed to ensure that Montana’s citizens do not get ripped off by utility corporations, but the commission has not just been moribund in that regard and has actually undertaken efforts to do the opposite by passing regulatory policies aimed at crippling the state’s solar industry.

In a stunning example of both incompetence and illegality, the all-Republican commission held a “listening session” in Billings last week to hear what solar panel owners had to say about the proposed predatory rate NorthWestern wants to levy on solar panel owners for what they call “demand charges.” But in clear violation of state public meeting laws, they held it in a locked building and the public could only get in by phoning a number pasted on the locked door.

Solar panel owners, through “net metering,” get credit for the power they generate by off-setting their electricity bills. But any power generated by solar panel owners beyond what they use goes back into NorthWestern’s grid for free — and NorthWestern then sells. Moreover, NorthWestern does not carry over the credits, but wipes them off their books annually while, of course, enjoying the profits it reaps from selling the over-production electricity.

The Public Service Commission’s job is to protect Montana consumers, not pad NorthWestern Energy’s profit margin. Nor is it to discourage the production of clean, secure, dispersed solar power, especially in light of the devastating climate impacts from centralized power sources such as coal-fired power plants. But that’s not happening.

Once again, a monopoly utility is squeezing Montana’s consumers “by the bulbs” while our Public Service Commission abandons consumers. And once again the only way we’re going to ensure our own affordable, livable future is by fighting against the rip-off policies and for sensible, clean renewable energy by electing Public Service Commissioners that will serve Montanans, not out-of-state utility corporations.


George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.