February 4th 2015
A stalled project to put 15 industrial-sized wind turbines next to the six already up and running between Choteau and Fairfield will get reconsideration before the Montana Public Service Commission on Feb. 10.
Martin Wilde of Fairfield, working through the company, Greenfield Wind L.L.C., has been in a disagreement with NorthWestern Energy since April 2014 over what the utility will pay the wind developer for each megawatt-hour generated. The cost to integrate the intermittent energy into the region’s power grid is also unsettled.
In December, both parties agreed to a price to avoid further litigation, and filed a joint motion to approve a settlement agreement with the PSC, but the commissioners denied the settlement by a 3-2 vote.
Since that time, Brad Johnson replaced Bill Gallagher on the commission. Gallagher, Roger Koopman and Kirk Bushman voted against the settlement, while Travis Kavulla and Bob Lake voted for it.
Wilde called the denial “an 11th hour surprise reversal ruling” that “appeared to result from Gallagher placing his personal opinion and politics ahead of federal and state laws and ahead of the best interests of Montana rate payers.”
The PSC has invited the parties to present oral arguments for reconsideration at its Feb. 10 meeting in Helena.
At stake is whether Teton County will see a doubling of wind generation and an additional six-figure tax bill it will pay. Wilde’s Fairfield Wind six-turbine project that cost more than $25 million will start paying taxes next November.
Greenfield Wind attorney Ryan Shaffer of Missoula stated in his written motion to reconsider that the PSC’s decision was “unlawful, unjust and unreasonable” and constitutes an unlawful discrimination against “qualifying facilities,” namely, certain types of small power generation facilities, such as those from renewable-energy sources like the wind.
According to the Edison Electric Institute, the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA) requires electric utilities to purchase energy offered by qualifying facilities. The goal is to support the development of small, onsite renewable generation and to promote diversity of a utility’s supply portfolio.
Montana has a renewable portfolio standard that requires public utilities to obtain a percentage of their retail electricity sales from eligible renewable resources. That percentage grew to 15 percent in 2015 after starting at 5 percent in 2008.
The PURPA also requires utilities to purchase electric energy from qualifying facilities at rates that are just and reasonable to consumers and that are equal to the utility’s avoided cost, defined as the incremental energy and capacity cost the utility would have incurred generating power from its own operating plant.
The state, through the PSC, governs the process to define those rates and has set a standard rate for certain qualifying facilities, but the Greenfield Wind project does not meet the criteria for that rate.
Wilde said that Greenfield has been seeking a long-term contract under PURPA with NorthWestern since 2010. But those efforts have been stymied, Wilde said, by the PSC’s rules prohibiting such long-term contracts for projects over a three-megawatt eligibility cap for the standard rate. Greenfield would generate 25 megawatts.
The rule used to be that the standard rate would apply to facilities generating 10 megawatts or less, and Wilde’s Fairfield Wind six-turbines qualified for the standard rate by generating 10 MW.
While the two parties were far apart at first in their proposed rates for the power, Shaffer said, “Greenfield recognized that with some concessions on Greenfield’s part, the gap between the rate proposed by NorthWestern and the rate proposed by Greenfield could be largely bridged.”
The negotiated rate is $50.49 per megawatt-hour if Greenfield pays NorthWestern for integration or $53.99 per MWh if Greenfield delivers a wind-integrated product. Another stipulation calls for Greenfield to delay the commercial online date until 2016.
Back in 2011, NorthWestern was paying a weighted average cost of $60.44 per MWh for qualifying facilities.
The PSC staff recommended that the commission approve the settlement but the commission voted otherwise.
Recent case law in the state determined that rates for purchases from qualifying facilities must be based on “current avoided least cost resource data,” Shaffer said. He argued that the market prices underlying the negotiated rate and the PSC staff’s benchmarking analysis come directly from NorthWestern’s 2013 least cost plan.
Shaffer alleges that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found that the PSC is failing to implement federal law for projects exactly like Greenfield. His argument is tied to the PSC’s recent approval of NorthWestern’s purchase of PPL’s hydroelectric dams. That process used the same market rates for evaluating whether the hydroelectric power system was a least-cost source. The commission voted for approval of the acquisition, Shaffer said.
He said the settlement rate “would save between $5.9 and $10.6 million over the life of the project compared to the two most reasonable alternative avoided-cost benchmarks.”
Wilde said, “Rejection of the unopposed settlement unreasonably deprives NorthWestern’s customers of the benefits of these favorable rates.”
He added that Greenfield’s rates would be significantly higher if Greenfield is forced to fully litigate its claim to a “legally enforceable obligation,” which is a “must-buy” provision of PURPA.
He explained that PSC’s own rules provide that a utility shall purchase available power from any qualifying facility at either the standard rate determined by the commission to be appropriate for the utility, or at a rate which is a negotiated term of the contract between the utility and the qualifying facility.
Feb 4 2015