On the issues
How would you assess the performance of the current Public Service Commission?
I would rate the performance very low. News stories alone paint a picture of bickering and infighting and campaign violations. Personal agendas seem to be the priority and staff seems to be running the show. There are small water and propane utilities who have been struggling to resolve rate cases for years with this PSC. Commissioners don’t seem to understand federal regulations vs state law nor their role in processing dockets brought before them.
Utility regulation is highly technical work that involves complex legal and engineering issues. What experience do you have that makes you confident you’ll be able to effectively parse detailed briefing materials and fairly evaluate competing arguments from business representatives and environmental advocates?
I graduated from MSU – Bozeman 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology. My first professional job was as a field engineer. I was fortunate to travel worldwide while I managed multi-million dollar projects. This involved construction, training plant personnel and performing to the terms of sales contracts. This required overcoming cultural differences and language barriers, as well as dealing with each group’s business interest. I currently work for Kestrel Engineering, a position I took following a four-year term on the Public Service Commission. My experience includes projects with refineries, power plants, mining companies, and more. Some projects were to meet government and/or environmental regulations, some to increase production/efficiency and others were to recycle outdated facilities that had been shut down. I bring to the job a diverse background spanning more than 30 years in the private industry and four years representing District 2 on the Montana PSC.
In addition to energy companies, the PSC regulates telephone companies, garbage haulers and passenger motor carriers. There has been some discussion in recent years about adding hospital oversight to the commission’s responsibilities as well. Do you think the PSC has appropriate regulatory scope?
No, I do not. The PSC staffing, budgeting, and IT would need to be restructured. First, the PSC and MCC budgets are primarily funded by NorthWestern Energy and MDU customers. Hospital regulation would tip the scales of the funding mechanism enough to be considered unjust. An additional revenue stream would need to be established from the Medical Sector. Secondly, depending on the type of hospital regulation, the PSC would have to add knowledgeable staff of legal and technical issues common to the medical field. Finally, the PSC has struggled with IT issues. Even after red flags were raised, the PSC decided to transfer IT services to the state. This is something not even the Legislature would do. That is right, the Montana state Legislature has its own IT services. After hundreds of thousands in expenditures, the PSC’s website and IT services struggle to meet basic standards of today.
Do you think the current Public Service Commission has placed appropriate weight on climate change considerations?
The PSC should apply the law. If any weight is to be given to climate change it should be done via the Legislature. There are challenges on the federal level that raise questions as to the authority of the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) relative to renewable energy resources (Qualifying Facilities). Conflict regarding these issues can arise and are usually settled in legal cases between the PSC and FERC that may or may not involve the governor’s and AG’s office. Given the latest court decisions against the PSC in favor of the solar companies regarding QF contract lengths, it is clear the PSC does not understand how to apply the federal regulations. The commission should have taken a balanced approach of adjusting the avoided cost and contract length per type of generation. These adjustments then should have been applied equally to the utility and the company proposing the QF contract.
Do you think the current Public Service Commission has placed appropriate weight on preserving the economic benefits of coal generating plants in Colstrip and Sidney?
No, the PSC recently rejected the application of NorthWestern Energy for additional shares of CU4. Then two weeks later, the PSC changed their mind. One commissioner voted “no” on reconsideration which passed 3 to 2. He then voted “yes” on the issues to be changed under reconsideration… that doesn’t make any sense! If there are economic benefits to be preserved, the burden is on the utility to demonstrate these benefits during the proceedings. The PSC’s process is to determine if it is in the “public interest” or as often stated “reasonable and prudent” (low cost reliable resources). These terms may seem ambiguous, but they do take on meaning in the formal procedure. The case is subject to parties who may argue in favor or against the utilities application. The job of the commission is to facilitate the arguments of the parties involved and render a decision, not kick it back into the public arena for debate in the media
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