WATCH: The politics of keeping the lights on

Millions of people lost power this past week amid record-breaking weather in Texas. It impacted every source of electricity – even froze wind turbines. The latest incident highlights weaknesses in America’s energy system. And experts predict more power shortages due to economic factors like coal plants closing and the dynamics involving clean energy. Today, we dig into the politics of keeping the lights on in “Power Play.”

In a number of states, there’s growing talk of impending power shortages. Experts predict that starting as early as this year, in some states, there may not be enough electricity available during peak demand times. They say that means a growing risk of blackouts in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Montana. Which is pressing everyone to find solutions. Here in Montana, the winter days are short. But in terms of sunlight, it’s still rated as 26 percent better than the national average.

Sharyl: Solar advocates say big sky country is the perfect environment for solar energy. It’s the political and business climate that’s proven less friendly.

That turn was taken when Montana’s utility regulator, the Public Service Commission, made a controversial decision back in 2017. It was a decision that benefited utility monopoly NorthWestern Energy according to Anne Hedges, who’s with the nonprofit Montana Environmental Information Center.

Anne Hedges: They made a rule or decision that disadvantaged, really grossly disadvantaged, these solar energy developers. But we thought that that was wrong. We thought it was not in line with what federal law required, and it certainly wasn’t in line with the spirit of the law, which is intended to encourage these small businesses to really be able to thrive.

The federal law she’s talking about dates back to America’s energy crisis in the 1970s.

There was a gas shortage. Oil prices quadrupled. The panic led to long lines at the pump. Fuel was rationed. People even began stealing gas out of other people’s cars.

In response, Congress passed the “The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act” or PURPA in 1978. It was meant to promote energy conservation and pump up supplies forcing big electric monopolies to buy some of their power from alternative energy projects.

Today, it’s left up to each state’s Public Service Commission to help mediate the sometimes-touchy contracts between fossil fuel-reliant companies and their renewable energy competitors.

So back to that controversial decision by Montana’s Public Service Commission nearly four years ago. It slashed the rates NorthWestern Energy would have to pay solar companies for their power by 40%.

Sharyl: Is there any indication that anyone on the Public Service Commission made their decision to intentionally impact the competitive nature of solar?

Hedges: It appeared so.

But what really burned Hedges and other solar advocates was a hot mic moment at the Public Service Commission the day of the vote.

Sharyl: Tell us about the hot mic moment.

Anne Hedges: In an intermission in the commission meeting, one of the commissioners didn’t realize that the microphones were still on and he could be heard talking to a staff person saying that, “I guess that takes care of the whole thing.”

Speaking with staff during a break, commissioner Bob Lake seemed to acknowledge that cutting the rates for solar companies would be enough to kill small solar projects.

Bob Lake: And honestly at this low price, I can’t imagine anyone gonna get into it.

Staff Member: No, no one.

Lake: So, it’s gonna be, it becomes a totally moot point because just dropping the rate that much probably took care of the whole thing.

Sharyl: In a general sense, what do you take it to mean when he said, “Took care of the whole thing”?

Anne Hedges: That it solved the problem of all these pesky solar developers wanting to contract with our major utility.

Lake: We’re still live.

Staff Member: Yeah, but I think our mics are off so we’re ok.

The mics weren’t off —and it was too late. By the way, Commissioner Lake declined our interview requests.

Hedges argues that when the Public Service Commission set contract terms that disadvantaged small renewable energy projects, it violated that federal PURPA law from the 1970s. Her environmental group sued.

Hedges: This lawsuit was intended to unlock clean energy development in Montana. There was a real hesitation by the utility that serves most of Montana to contract with renewable energy developers, to provide solar energy to Montana customers.

After a lengthy court battle, the environmentalists won. In two decisions, in August and September last year, the Montana Supreme Court ruled against the Public Service Commission and said solar companies must be paid more.

Roger Koopman: We’re not very happy with these decisions.

But as with a lot of stories, there’s another side. Roger Koopman was on the Public Service Commission that voted to cut the solar rates. Only to have the state Supreme Court hike them back up.

Sharyl: The justification was, if I understand this correctly, that’s what needed to be paid, the court said, to the solar companies for them to be able to get into the business and be competitive. Without that, they probably couldn’t enter the market.

Roger Koopman: That was definitely part of their justification, I would say, of the court. That’s turning the rule of law on its head because that’s not what federal law requires us to do. We are not required to guarantee the business success of anybody. We’re not there to take sides and to advantage one form of energy over another. We’re to produce an even playing field and let the competitive forces take over from there in producing the best energy, the cheapest.

Koopman says he and the rest of the Public Service Commission were doing what’s right for customers.

With the court’s decision, he says, NorthWestern Energy will have to pay solar companies 144% more than what the Public Service Commission advised and that cost is passed onto customers.

Roger Koopman: I think where a big part of the conflict is, is that there are people who believe so much in renewables and that it’s going to save the world someday. Bless their hearts, they have a real strong concern about climate change. I tend to be a real skeptic about many of those claims. So, they believe that there should be a premium price for renewables, that the renewables should get something extra. But I also think there’s a general attitude that fine, renewable energy is great, go for it, but don’t make me pay more for it. It should reflect the market cost of energy, no more, no less.

No matter who’s right, there’s big money at stake for both the energy companies and customers.

Sharyl: This is a story of Montana, of course, but do you know how this implicates or what this says about what’s going on in the rest of the country when it comes to clean energy options?

Anne Hedges: So, this conflict is coming up in many states across the nation where you have utilities who simply don’t like to have to buy somebody else’s electricity. So it’s a really common conflict that’s coming to a head.

Conflicts being generated around the country, centered on a federal law born of the energy crisis, now more than four decades old.

Sharyl (on camera) : With the coronavirus shutdown, there’s been less demand for electricity for stores and offices. NorthWestern Energy is joining those predicting shortage of reliable energy as coal-fired power plants in the region close.

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8 thoughts on “WATCH: The politics of keeping the lights on”

  1. I’m an electrical engineer in Texas specializing in power generation and distribution.. The wide scale power outages would not have been prevented or even lessened by the implementation of solar panels. They’re pretty much useless when covered with snow and ice, which was the case here.
    Energy storage ( Li ion being pushed by manufacturers ) which is needed to make solar useful, is enormously expensive and has a relatively short lifetime. The amount of batteries needed to sustain power during an extended shutdown of generation like we saw would take all the manufacturers in the world a few years to produce, and the cost would be hundreds of billions
    That’s terrific for the battery suppliers, but it’s not a. practical solution. for any government with finite resources.
    The politics pushing solar are being pushed by lobbists for the manufacturers in the alternative energy industry,, who constantly have their hands out for tax exemptions and other taxpayer funded grants.
    Solar is predominant in California- its grid is collapsing because of its insistence on implementing a power source that is useful for supplemental purposes, but not as a primary supply of power. .

  2. Why solar and wind producers think they should get a premium for their production seems to be hubris. Their power is better than other facilities (usually coal)? Only in their mind. It is “green” arrogance. How much of their infrastructure was subsidized? I do not doubt there being a “fix” in with a government agency. That is pretty much all they do from my observation-roll over to the current leading pressure group.

    More and more evidence is arising that power suppliers are being forced to rely on these “green” sources. As a result the suppliers face an unstable grid due to supply fluctuations from cloud cover, night, or periods of calm. In these events power suppliers will not have a stabilizing base power source or are unable to access a means of increasing supply from more conventional, reliable sources (coal, gas, nuclear, etc, as a generation source. The dirty secret is that many of the “zero carbon” states purchase their stabilizing of peak energy supplies from neighboring states using coal or other fuel sourced generation.

    Oregon, in particular, is headed for ruin as laws now demand soon even blocking the purchase of conventionally generated power when “green” sources fail to be sufficient. The two coal generating stations (Boardman and Centralia) are already shut down and suggestions of natural gas conversion were shouted down by the Greens.. Hydropower isn’t even considered a “renewable” source and there is a hard push to eliminate hydropower from the Klamath River.

    Apparently, the answer is to build batteries to store the excess power produced by wind and solar and erect massive solar farms to destroy winter elk and deer habitat. There was a study in Britain as to the feasibility of keeping their grid up with battery back up. The amount of battery storage required would involve the construction of a battery infrastructure requiring more cobalt to build the batteries than known World reserves. Not to mention the documented use of child labor in Africa in the mining of Cobalt.

    The answer would be a system of the modular nuclear generation sites such as in France. However, green radiophobia immediately rises up to create unwarranted fear blocking a viable solution.

    Already the U.S. is well-behind a great number of the industrialized with the amount of electrical blackout time per citizen per year. Until we stop basing our future energy needs on lollipops and unicorns (wind and solar) and become rational we will be faced with an electrical supply that will continue to devolve toward Third World status,

  3. Sharyl, on a related subject, I heard today that Gov Abbott requested emergency authority from Pres. Biden to allow full generation of all generating plants across the state of Texas in anticipation of the winter storm. The info I heard that Biden only gave approval for about 25% of the Texas counties. Can you confirm this? And since when does a governor have to ask the president for permission to temporarily go to full power when a storm is imminent? And, btw, whatever happened to global warming?

  4. The title mentions the problem and any solution involves removing the problem.
    Politics determines whether we have power available to meet our needs, not Common Sense.

    If “Pro” is the opposite of “Con”, what is the opposite of Progress?

    Our problem with petroleum products began when the decision was made to purchase Middle Eastern Oil instead of use domestic reserves. We never needed foreign oil. Our leaders saw no problem with sending Trillions of Dollars to the Middle East with nothing in return at the expense of our economic well=being. Can anyone say? Massive Deficit.
    You would think enough damage would have been done to our economy, but then Congress compounded the problem by limiting the construction of new refineries. I believe the most recent refinery was opened for production in 1979. I know several are under construction but I don’t know if any are operating yet. I believe some of them have been fighting bureaucratic red tape for 20 years. Bureaucrats created and turned loose by Congress.

    If “Pro” is the opposite of “Con”, what is the opposite of Progress?
    Everything that happened in Texas is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

  5. Sharyl,
    Again thank you for providing both sides of the story. That is what journalism is supposed to be. I will take a quote from Richard Feynman out of context, but nonetheless it unquestionably applies: “….(government) owes it to the citizens from whom it asks its support, to be frank, honest and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions on the use of their limited resources. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” God Bless you for your work.

  6. I am all for green energy entering the market smartly, however killing 6 gigawatt of coal generation in Texas because of mandates from the Obama/Biden administration. Texas is paying the short sighted price.

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