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Montana energy uncertainty comes as large solar farm planned

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BILLINGS (AP) – Plans for a Billings solar farm are heating up just as renewable energy politics cool at the Montana Legislature.

The MT Sun solar farm would produce 80 megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power 14,400 homes. It would be Montana’s largest solar project, spanning 480 acres, and the first on public land, the Billings Gazette reports .

It would cost $90 million to $110 million to build. The state signed a lease with MT Sun last September and expects to begin the environmental work on the project in the coming months.

It would be built on trust land, so Montana’s public schools would receive money from the lease.

“Potentially, should it be all built out, we could be looking at $200,000 a year,” said Mike Atwood of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The lease payments would be $124,800 initially, the department said. Taxes collected from the project are expected to total more than a $1 million a year, with Yellowstone County gaining the most.

However, Montana solar projects are facing dark times.

The Legislature is considering weakening state laws that support solar and other renewable energy development. The state Senate began changing the contract terms last week for renewable energy qualifying facilities, or QFs.

In Montana, utilities are required to buy power from QFs to bolster renewable energy development.

The state Public Service Commission approves the price for which the power is bought, the length of the contract and a project size under which utilities must offer a contract with terms set by the state.

Montana is compelled to promote renewable energy by a 48-year-old federal law.

The commission illegally suspended the law in June 2016 at the request of NorthWestern Energy. The utility said it was being flooded with small solar energy projects, roughly 100 of them, attracted to Montana by QF prices and contracts that were far too favorable.

The federal government in December ruled that Montana was wrong to abandon the law. Now, the commission is trying to set a less favorable price for renewables that won’t attract so many projects.

In addition, the Legislature is changing the rules for QF contracts, limiting the length to no more than 20 years and setting no minimum contract lengths.

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