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Montana Public Service Commission Votes To Increase NorthWestern Energy Rates

Montanans are about to pay more for electricity from Northwestern Energy.

Montana’s Public Service Commission voted unanimously Oct. 25 on a settlement with NorthWestern Energy which will result in a roughly eight percent increase in residential energy rates compared to what they’re currently paying. This agreement will mean a 28 percent increase in residential energy rates since August 2022.

Commissioners on the five-member, all-Republican body, met Oct. 25 to make the decision two years in the making in the middle of a snowstorm, the first of the year for many areas of the state, which was noted by PSC President James Brown.

“Our duties are made even more solemn when all of us understand that access to safe and reliable power is at times a matter of life and death, particularly during those periods of extreme winter weather, and we’re reminded that by the arrival of our first snowstorm today,” said Brown.

The PSC’s decision was criticized in public comment prior to the commission’s discussion. Commissioners largely said the public was misinformed and the commission’s hands were legally tied, pointing to tax increases and infrastructure investments as reasons for the increase.

Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center told commissioners during public comment the agreement read like NorthWestern Energy wrote it and will impact thousands of Montana families already feeling the pinch with inflation and rising property taxes.

“You are elected by those families who will suffer the consequences of this decision and are allowing the 28 percent rate increase, and that is just the beginning of what this settlement would allow,” Hedges said.

During an April hearing, an exhibit said in August 2022, residential customers paid $91.27 for their electric bill, and if the PSC approves a settlement that’s part of the case, they would pay $116.63, a 27.7 percent increase.

Commenter Rob Freistadt said the commission’s “history of approving rates for NorthWestern constantly is not admirable.”

“They are acting irresponsibly and you guys are rubber stamping them,” he said.

Other commissioners objected, saying his comments dismissed the work staff did in analyzing the data around the decision.

Commissioner Jennifer Fielder said NorthWestern Energy faced significant property tax increases, which the company is legally required to be passed on to consumers. She said the decision was on the legislature and local governments to implement, not the commission.

Brown said it’s on the Montana Consumer Counsel to look out for the interests of ratepayers, not the commission.

“Certainly we have intervening parties that come in and represent their particular rate class customers, but it’s the Montana Consumer Counsel that is, under the Montana Constitution, designated as the representative of customers of regulated utilities. So, it is not the commission,” Brown said.

The counsel signed off on the settlement, but “non-settling parties” would bear more than 90 percent of the increase as proposed in the settlement, according to testimony at the April hearing.

 

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