More than 150 renewable energy supporters rallied at the state Capitol Thursday, voicing support for legislation expanding opportunities for new solar projects they say will bring more jobs and keep Montana from falling behind in a burgeoning industry.

House Bill 504 sponsor Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, coined the bill the “Solar Jobs and Energy Freedom Act,” but it is officially titled the “Neighborhood Net Metering Act.” The House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations Committee heard testimony on the bill on Wednesday, and is expected to take action on it Friday.

On Thursday Bennett was joined by some of the bill’s cosponsors and renewable energy advocates to generate their own energy behind the legislation.

“What this bill is about, as I’m sure all of you know, is changing the status quo,” he said. “Because right now we’ve heard from government and the utility company that everything just has to stay the way it is.”

The bill makes four primary changes to energy law around “net metering,” or when solar or other renewable energy generators are connected to the power grid with excess power credited to offset energy costs. In Montana, NorthWestern Energy is typically required to buy the net metered power as a credit on that generator’s bill.

First, HB504 increases the net metering cap a generator can be credited for from 50 kilowatts to one megawatt.

Second, generators can use “aggregate” net metering, meaning multiple renewable energy sources can go to one meter rather than separate credits.

Third, “neighborhood” net metering would be allowed, letting groups come in on a community project with the goal of lowering multiple energy bills.

Fourth, the bill requires utilities to share leftover energy credits with nonprofits aimed at low income energy customers.

At Wednesday’s hearing, supporters of HB504 said current laws hamper the solar industry.

“What we have in Montana is a badly out-of-date policy,” said Andrew Valainis, executive director of the Montana Renewable Energy Association. “We don’t have the political climate to invest in a larger workforce.”

Utilities and organized labor came out against the bill, saying the move is premature at best and in need of more scrutiny.

John Alke, testifying for NorthWestern, said that solar generation does not match with Montana’s peak power usage. In the winter and after dark is when usage is at its highest and solar output is at its lowest. The utility must provide an equal match of conventionally generated power to meet customer needs, he said.

Alke continued with some harsh criticism of the bill, saying it creates a new classification of an “unregulated” solar project and that the law is unfair to NorthWestern and its customers. The utility must buy net metered power at a retail rate while it could purchase power on the open market for less than a third. NorthWestern pays for transmission and maintenance while net metering enjoys those benefits but absorbs none of those costs, he said.

“The solar industry is shameless in the demands it makes for subsidies and this is a shameless bill,” Alke told the committee.

Labor groups objected to overall regulation of the industry and compliance with licensing and safety standards.

At Thursday’s rally Brad Van Wert, perhaps better known as “Solar Guy” for his animated renewable energy advocacy, fired up the crowd saying that the solar industry is not going to wait for Montana to make a decision.

“People right now are incredibly excited about solar. The industry is growing and we want to make sure Montana is a part of that,” he said to cheers.

Rep. Denise Hayman, D-Bozeman, took her turn before the crowd and offered her personal story of investing in solar. HB504 would allow others to participate in net metering in the way it works best for them, she said.

Rep. Mike Hopkins of Missoula was the lone Republican legislator to speak, although others were mentioned as supporters.

“Principles matter and rights matter and property rights matter,” he told the crowd. “Whether it’s an individual looking to put a solar panel on top of their house or a group of individuals looking to do the same, the government has no compelling interest in prohibiting that.”

Jerad McDermott, owner of L.P. Anderson tire store in Billings, said a lot of legislators have a misconception around solar believing that it is driven by environmentalists. He installed a solar system at the shop and has been able to reinvest the saving into the business, buying new equipment and upping wages.

Dave Tyler owns Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company near Bozeman. His wool mill is powered almost entirely by solar, and using renewable energy has become a powerful marketing tool to customers, he said.

Young Eva Lighthiser stepped to the podium and introduced herself with confidence. The sun never runs out, she said, adding she hopes one day Montana’s power comes entirely from renewable sources.

Van Wert closed the rally urging attendees to voice their support for HB504 to legislators ahead of Friday’s vote. The rally was the culmination of a series of events throughout the state to generate interest and support in solar power and other renewables, such as wind.

“This is democracy in action right here,” he said.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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