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Interest in solar power soaring while utility seeks rate cut

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GREAT FALLS (AP) – Interest in solar power is soaring in Montana because of the state’s sunny skies and profit potential.
But NorthWestern Energy, the largest public utility in Montana, is seeking a sharp cut in rates set by the Public Service Commission, the Great Falls Tribune reported. That could curb some of the enthusiasm.

NorthWestern currently pays $66 per megawatt-hour for solar electricity and has requested that rate be dropped to $34. The utility argues that entering contracts with solar providers at the current rate will mean higher electricity bills for 360,000 Montana customers.

Kathi Montgomery, who is the renewable energy specialist with the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Energy Bureau, said that if the rate is cut in half, many proposed projects will stall.

NorthWestern has signed five 25-year contracts with Cypress Creek Renewables of Santa Monica, Calif., for 14 megawatts of solar power from separate farms outside Missoula, Helena, Townsend, Hardin and Reedpoint. The deals are the state’s first solar power purchase agreements between a solar developer and a utility, Montgomery said.

Ten to 20 projects are in some stage of development statewide, with the companies leasing land or attempting to get building and storm-water permits and approval from counties where zoning changes might be necessary, Montgomery said.

“We have a really good solar resource,” she said. “We don’t have as many cloudy days as other places have. Even when it’s really cold here in the winter, it’s still sunny.”

Photovoltaic solar panels are more efficient in cold temperatures, she said. The cost of solar equipment has come down substantially in the past few years, Montgomery added.

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