PSC District 3 Final | Renewable Energy | Deregulation

For immediate release PSC District 3 EDITOR’S NOTE: These stories are produced by University of Montana journalism students

under the supervision of Professor Dennis Swibold. They may be republished without charge, provided editors retain the students’ bylines. Please contact Professor Swibold (dennis.swibold@umontana.edu) with any questions. You can also find this story and others on the upcoming election at www.montanaschoice2008.blogspot.com.

Olson, Vincent Vie for Open Seat in PSC District 3
By LAURA BARNES Community News Service UM School of Journalism As the cold season descends on Montana, consumers can expect their power bills to make serious dents in their pocketbooks. How those power bills change over the next few years, however, depends in part on what the state rate-setting Public Service Commission has to say about it. That’s where Alan Olson and John Vincent step in. As candidates for the Public Service Commission for southwestern Montana’s PSC District 3, the men are vying for the right to represent Montanans’ utilities and energy concerns. While both support a return to regulated utilities in Montana, the biggest difference between them is their stance on alternative energy. Olson has an eye on splitting future energy costs between fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, and renewable energy, such as wind. Vincent intends to focus more on developing renewable sources. Olson, a Republican from Roundup, spent all eight years in the Legislature on the House Energy and Technology Committee, serving as chairman for half that time. His professional experience includes 30 years in the private oil and gas industry. Olson said that while renewable resources are the future, they aren’t developed enough to support Montana’s entire energy consumption now. While wind technology is a great resource, Olson said, it is intermittent. “We need to look at gas generation to firm up wind,” he said. “I think that coal definitely needs to be a part of the program.” Vincent, a Democrat from Bozeman, was House speaker twice in his 16-year tenure with the Montana Legislature. He served two years as mayor of Bozeman and six years as a Gallatin County commissioner. Vincent wants a PSC that focuses primarily on developing renewable energy sources. “Renewable/alternative energy and increased energy efficiency is our energy future,” Vincent wrote via e-mail. “I support policy initiatives and incentives for wind, solar, and geothermal energy and the good, new energy jobs these technologies will create.” Vincent also supports the Western Climate Initiative, an international, bipartisan partnership focused on renewable resources, energy and climate impact reduction. The WCI is supported by seven U.S. governors, including Montana’s Brian Schweitzer, and four Canadian premiers.

“If elected to the Public Service Commission, I will join with Governor Schweitzer in doing all I can to promote the goals and objectives of the WCI,” Vincent wrote. But Olson and Vincent strongly agree the path to lower energy costs involves reregulating Montana utilities. Both blamed high prices on utility deregulation, a process in which the 1997 Legislature allowed then-powerhouse Montana Power Co. to sell off electricityproducing power plants and dams. After Montana Power’s demise, NorthWestern Energy inherited the job of providing energy to Montana. But it owns only the energy distribution system and is forced to buy power on the open market. Colstrip 4, one of the hottest issues on the PSC plate, has roots in the deregulation story. NorthWestern is hoping get into the power-producing business A year ago, NorthWestern reportedly spent $187 million to acquire a share of the coal-fueled power plant near Billings. Since then, they have petitioned the PSC to distribute the cost to the consumers, but at the price of $407 million. The PSC may approve, deny or rework the petition. Vincent said Colstrip 4 is something that needs to be considered carefully, especially given the cost. “I think that the price that NorthWestern is asking for the energy coming out of that thing is too high,” Vincent said. “I’m ready to take a close and in-depth look at the proposal, but my first obligation is to represent Montana ratepayers.” Vincent said his biggest concern is how much Colstrip 4 is going to cost costumers long term. “They want to lock ($407 million) into the rate base,” Vincent said. “But if you lock it in at that price, rates will go up. They’ll go up immediately and they’ll stay up for 10 years. “The argument after that is that the power will eventually pay for itself. But with increased energy efficiency, with different rate modifications, and the wide use of alternative energy resources, I’m not sure if that would be the case.” Olson said Colstrip 4 is a chance to give Montanans more control over their utilities. “It’s an opportunity to get away from the markets, and distance ourselves more from what came down under deregulation,” he said. But Olson agreed that the petition needs investigation before any decision. “It’s something I think we need to look at very closely, and look at the long-term benefits versus any short-term issues,” Olson said. “The questions I have will be what are the bottom line costs for bringing that back in.” Re-regulation will remain a top priority, both said. “(Deregulation) was, and remains, an unmitigated disaster, nothing short of a train wreck for Montana families, businesses, the promise of sustained economic development, and the creation of good, new jobs,” Vincent wrote. Olson agreed, saying that bringing down costs is crucial. “We need to look at how it’s affecting the consumer’s pocketbook,” Olson said. Despite differing views on alternative energy, both candidates see re-regulation as a means to cut utility bills. “We need to concentrate on protecting the consumer, especially today, given energy prices being as high as they are,” Olson said. Vincent vowed the same.

“If elected to the PSC, I will do everything I can to re-regulate utilities in Montana and put Montana’s energy future back into the hands of Montanans,” he wrote. -30-

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