As majority Republicans at the Legislature talk up oil, gas and coal development in Montana, they’re also pursuing another energy agenda: Torpedoing the state’s incentives for conservation and renewable power.
Bills to restrict new energy-efficient building codes, undermine “net metering” for small-scale renewable power plants and limit the use of tiered utility rates to encourage conservation are advancing through the Senate.
A Republican lawmaker also has proposed repealing both the state’s mandate for utilities to develop renewable power, such as wind, solar or geothermal and tax break for power lines that transmit “green” energy.
Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge and the sponsor of some of these measures, says they merely ensure that renewable-power and conservation incentives won’t create undue or unfair costs for consumers or other energy users.
“Most of the bills I’m sponsoring are focused on making sure that we look at both the costs and the benefits of renewables (and conservation),” he says. “If we’re going to create jobs, we need low-cost energy.”
Supporters of renewable-power and conservation incentives — including Gov. Brian Schweitzer — say the move to undermine them is not only illogical but hypocritical.
For while Republicans say it’s unfair and costly for the government to encourage alternative power, they seem fine with subsidies, tax breaks and government spending that help oil, coal and other fossil fuels, says Anne Hedges, program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center.
“They don’t mind incentives for big corporations, but if you talk about incentives for consumers or small businesses, they seem to be opposed to those,” she says. “This Legislature is not interested in encouraging renewables or helping consumers lower their bill through increased conservation.”
Schweitzer, a self-professed booster of all types of energy development in Montana, including renewable power, also says killing conservation and renewable-power incentives will cost jobs, by discouraging development in these areas.
When asked whether he’d veto the measures, Schweitzer said they sound like bills that wouldn’t create jobs, and “I’d probably take a dim view of something like that.”
“This action is irrational,” he continued. “(All energy development) creates jobs. … If the Flat Earth Society in the Montana Legislature continues to try to chase business away from Montana, it’s going to have a devastating effect all across Montana.”
Several of Priest’s bills have either passed the Senate or moved to the Senate floor, on party-line votes with Republicans in favor.
Senate Bill 159 says new energy-efficient building codes can be adopted only if it’s shown the conservation measures save enough money to cover their cost in five years. SB226 would impose additional costs on the several hundred electric customers with net-metering.
These customers usually have a small windmill or other power-generator and feed power into the utility’s system, for which they receive credit on their electric bill.
Priest says energy-efficient codes shouldn’t increase the cost of housing without a proven payback, and that the real cost of net-metering shouldn’t be borne by other customers.
He also says those who say they want to limit electricity consumption are really saying they want to limit economic growth.
Rep. Derek Skees, R-Whitefish, is sponsoring House Bill 244, which would repeal the 2005 state law requiring utilities to provide at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015. He also has HB353, which would abolish 2007 tax breaks for any new power line that carries mostly “green” energy, such as wind.
Skees says most projects being funded to meet the mandate are wind power, and that wind power is not really “green,” because it requires additional gas-fired and other power to balance it on the utility’s system.
He also says wind power can’t survive in the marketplace without subsidies and mandates.
“If it was just the private sector (building it), it would never be built,” Skees says. “In my view, we should have an even playing field for all (energy). We should eliminate all incentives and let the market reign.”
Skees’ HB244 awaits action the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee; his other bill is scheduled for hearing today in the same committee.
Democrats who support renewable-power laws bristle at the claim that subsidies and mandates give wind or other alternative sources an unfair edge.
Rep. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, says if consumers had to pay the “real” cost of gasoline or coal, such as their environmental impacts or defense costs to protect international oil shipping lanes, those types of energy would be much more expensive.
“Who’s paying for the (naval) destroyers in the Persian Gulf?” he says. “How can the marketplace really be free and fair, if the consumers are blind to the cost?”
Phillips says he wants to increase Montana’s requirements for renewable power, but acknowledges that proposal has no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Hedges says Priest’s proposed changes for the net-metering and building-code programs will make them unworkable.
“These people are not looking out for the little guy,” she says of Republicans. “They are only looking out for the power industry of the past. They are trying to make everyone dependent on fossil fuel instead of becoming independent of it.
“It is a different direction than the rest of the world is going. It’s like, wow, would you please climb out of the 1960s?”
Priest says he thinks Montana needs a diverse energy supply, but that a different approach is needed. He also plans to introduce a bill that will create a new type of incentive for renewable power, by offering awards to private entrepreneurs who develop marketable green-energy ideas.
“Politicians are very bad at picking winners and losers,” he said. “Industrial policy hasn’t worked. And it hasn’t worked for green energy.”