Montana Bill Would Define Hydro as Renewable Power

Published April 1, 2013

Montana Sen. Jim Keane (D-Butte) has filed legislation to define hydropower as a renewable power source for meeting Montana’s renewable power mandates. Keane’s bill follows similar legislation approved by the legislature in 2011 but vetoed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D).

Bipartisan Support
The Montana Senate approved Keane’s bill, SB 45, in overwhelming, bipartisan fashion by a vote of 46-4. The House concurred by a vote of 70-27. The real drama will be over whether Gov. Steve Bullock (D) vetoes the bill and, if he does, whether the legislature overrides a veto.

Affordable Hydropower
Montana law requires consumers to purchase 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015 and 20 percent by 2020. Currently, large-scale hydropower does not count toward that amount, even though hydropower, like wind power, is renewable and emissions-free.

PPL Montana, the state’s largest supplier of hydroelectric power, is finishing up a $240 million expansion of its Rainbow Dam near Great Falls. Keane would like to see inexpensive Rainbow Dam power count toward the renewable mix.

Carl Graham, CEO of the Montana Policy Institute, notes PPL invested millions of dollars to upgrade the dam in Great Falls. The investment benefits consumers in the state by providing electricity that is far more affordable than wind and solar power.

“I’m not in favor of subsidizing renewables, but if we’re going to be in the business of picking renewable energy winners and losers, and hydro is every bit as renewable as wind and solar, then it’s hypocritical to not treat them all the same,” said Graham.

Activists Seek Increased Mandate
Kyla Maki, clean energy program director for the environmental activist group Montana Environmental Information Center, says her organization agrees with the concept of expanding renewable energy and approves retrofitting hydroelectric dams. Nevertheless, the organization opposes SB 45 because it grandfathers in the Rainbow Dam project, which might dissuade future projects unless the legislature increases the mandate above 15-percent.

“We’ve tried to get that clause changed. It was written specifically for the Great Falls dam which was finally completed last year,” said Maki. “We’d like to see a bill passed that includes more incentives.

“It comes down to incentivizing. Do we want to incentivize future projects? And if you incentivize other projects, will already completed ones dissuade people from taking on new ones?” she asked.

PPL began retrofitting the Great Falls dam—which was built in 1915—in 2010. The retrofitting will increase the dam’s power output from 30 megawatts to 56 megawatts.

“It’s a substantial project,” said Maki. “We support upgrading these dams and making them more fish-friendly.”

Restoring Affordable Electricity
H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, says state governments should never have gotten into the business of mandating renewable power production in the first place. In doing so, the state legislatures force consumers to purchase more expensive and less reliable energy, he said.

Nevertheless, said Burnett, SB 45 would restore affordable electricity to the renewable power mandate.

“Hydroelectric power is more reliable than other forms of renewable energy, like wind or solar, though it can become problematic if there is extended drought or low snowpack. In general, however, you can count on it 24 hours a day and seven days a week for at least some power,” said Burnett.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.