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Montana Legislators Look At New Renewable Energy Technologies, Carbon Bills

Republican Representative Derek Skees of Kalispell speaks at a hearing for HB 475 in the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations on February 22, 2021.
Montana Public Affairs Network
Republican Representative Derek Skees of Kalispell speaks at a hearing for HB 475 in the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations on February 22, 2021.

Montana lawmakers are considering changes to what qualifies as renewable energy and to what extent the state or local governments can require energy users to limit their carbon footprint.

Nicky Ouellet: What are some of the big themes in terms of energy bills being brought by lawmakers this session?

Kayla Desroches: The legislature is considering several bills to revise and repeal the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which the 2005 legislature established to introduce a diversity of renewable energy resources like wind and solar farms around Montana.

There are several bills aimed at the regulation of carbon emissions and rooftop solar and, in keeping with a general theme this session, we're also seeing Republicans introduce policy that past Democratic governors have vetoed

Nicky Ouellet: What are the bills to repeal and revise the state’s renewable energy standard trying to achieve?

Kayla Desroches: Bill sponsors say the goal is to correct what they see as bad policy. Republican Representative Jerry Schillinger of Circle is sponsoring the bill to repeal, HB 576, with the idea that the renewable portfolio standard fails to meet current needs in Montana.

“Montana’s increased its use of renewable energy, and it has not led to energy self-sufficiency and independence,” Schillinger said.

He echoes an argument NorthWestern Energy has made, that the state needs to build its available-on-demand energy resources with fossil fuel operations like the Colstrip coal-fired power plant. NorthWestern Energy has said it buys a lot of energy on the market.

Nicky Ouellet: So, a bill to repeal, but also a bill to revise?

Kayla Desroches: Again, sponsors say it’s about correcting bad policy. Electric utility regulators and NorthWestern Energy have said that the requirement to include a certain number of small, locally-owned clean energy resources called Community Renewable Energy Projects is hard to meet.

Republican Senator Doug Kary of Billings is sponsoring a bill, SB 237, to cut that part of the renewable portfolio standard. Also, Republican Representative Derek Skees of Kalispell is sponsoring HB 475, which would qualify hydropower as renewable energy under the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.

“The bottom line is this. If something doesn’t produce carbon in its generation, guess what? It’s green,” Skees said.

This kind of proposal has come up in one form or another since 2011.

Former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a similar bill from Skees in 2019, saying that allowing new hydroelectric facilities to qualify for the renewable energy standard would upset a carefully-crafted balance meant to help develop multiple renewable energy projects across the state.

Legislators this session are also exploring new forms of renewable technology

Representative Skees in his hydropower bill added a last minute amendment for nuclear energy built green before the bill passed out of committee. Legislators see new, cleaner nuclear technology like small modular nuclear reactors as a way forward for Montana, and specifically as a way to extend the life of the Colstirp coal-fired power plant

A joint resolution sponsored by Republican Senator Terry Gauthier of Helena, SJ 3, calls for a study of those reactors, which passed the senate unanimously and is currently in the House. The study received support also from environmental groups like the Montana Environmental Information Center

Nicky Ouellet: Right before leaving office, former Gov. Steve Bullock dropped the Montana Climate Solutions Plan, which called for Montana’s electric utilities and energy resources to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. Have we seen any bills pick up the proposals from that plan?

Kayla Desroches: The document touches on the development of technology that turns hydrogen from renewable resources into electricity.

A bill this session from Republican Representative Tom Welch of Dillon, HB 170, would define renewable hydrogen in law and create a tax category and financial incentives for its development.

Another of the plan's recommendations was to reduce the amount of transportation-caused air pollution, and Democratic Representative Andrea Olsen of Missoula sponsored HB 545 this session, which would have established a public transportation commission to study and make recommendations for how to expand and improve passenger transportation in the state.

That transportation bill was tabled, as were several other bills she introduced, including a comprehensive revision of the renewable portfolio standard that would have required electric utilities to increase their procurement of renewable sources to 80 percent by 2035.

“There are bills that in energy, for example, take us backwards and don't address the problems that we're being asked by science,” said Olsen.

Another recommendation in the climate solutions plan is to explore pollution disincentives, like carbon fees, and that type of mechanism has not earned a lot of support this session.

Republican Senator Jason Small of Busby sponsored Senate Bill 257 to bar cities and other local governments from imposing carbon penalties, fees or taxes unless the Montana Public Service Commission approves.

If passed, Small says the bill would not affect the goal of cities like Missoula, Bozeman and Helena, which have committed to reaching 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 because that green tariff agreement is between those governments and NorthWestern Energy with approval from the Montana PSC.

Small is also pushing Senate Joint Resolution 10 asking Congress to appropriate money for carbon capture technology development at Colstrip.

Gov. Greg Gianforte in his Montana Comeback Plan said he supports developing fossil fuels while protecting the environment.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.