Montana solar-power law rigging caught on live video, regrettably

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The U.S. is coming up to its Independence Day holiday, in which we celebrate the Declaration of Independence from England and reflect on our history and traditions as a nation.

This is an interesting time to do that, and there's a cynical argument to be made that backroom politics is as American as apple pie and bald eagles.

Which brings us to the ever-present dangers of live recording when politicians and government appointees say things they'd really rather not have the public at large hear.

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In this case, it was Montana Public Service Commissioner Bob Lake caught on video, speaking to his staff during a break in a session last Thursday in which the commission set rates and contract terms for small renewable-energy projects in the state.

As The Missoulian explains in an article about that video, captured by the Montana Gazette, Federal law requires the commission's actions to promote the deployment and use of renewable energy.

So it's unfortunate that Lake was captured admitting that the "cuts made that morning to rates and contracts offered to small, renewable energy projects [were] likely deep enough to kill future development," as the article described it.

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

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You can watch the four-and-a-half-minute video above and decide for yourself about Commissioner Lake's attitude toward the renewable energy sources he's supposed to be encouraging.

The new rules cut the rates Montana utilities would pay for small-scale renewable energy by 40 percent.

They also slashed the term of the contracts for such energy from 25 years to five years, with an option to negotiate rates for one more five-year term.

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That's too short a time to allow the financing of solar projects, advocates agree, for which payments are often spread over 10 to 25 years.

Lake is captured speaking to Rate Analyst Neil Templeton, who notes that the new terms are unworkable for projects that would otherwise qualify as eligible renewable sources.

Templeton notes that the low rates "probably took care of the whole thing," and Lake adds that "the 10-year [term] might do it if the price doesn't," but that "just dropping the rate that much probably took care of the whole thing."

Wind farm outside Fort MacLeod, Alberta, Canada [photographer: Joel Bennett]

Wind farm outside Fort MacLeod, Alberta, Canada [photographer: Joel Bennett]

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Local attorney Jenny Harbine, who represents the Montana Environmental Information Center, notes that setting contract terms that are unworkable violates the 40-year-old Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act.

She plans to file a motion to get the commission to reconsider its rules; if it doesn't, she says, she may have to complain to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about the state commission's actions.

It would be the second time within 12 months that she's had to do that: last year, the Federal commission ruled against Montana's public service commission after it "pulled the plug on guaranteed rates for small solar projects" at the request of a local utility.

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For his part, Lake acknowledged to reporters on Monday that the new rules "were probably unfavorable to developing small renewable energy projects in the future."

But, he said, the commission had no obligation to support development of renewable energy by granting it contracts and rates more favorable than other energy sources.

"We don’t have an obligation to assure they make money," Lake said. "We just don’t have that."

[hat tip: Wonkette]

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