HELENA – A Montana wind-power developer is suing state utility regulators and the state’s largest electric company, saying they are acting illegally to set lower contract prices that will kill any new independent renewable-power projects in Montana.

Those actions come at the same time as NorthWestern Corp., the state’s dominant electric utility, is seeking to increase rates for power it owns, said the lawsuit filed last week by wind-developer Marty Wilde and his companies.

“The Montana Public Service Commission and NorthWestern have collaborated to adopt rates for NorthWestern that are triple those renewable resources receive for the same product,” the suit said. “NorthWestern and the commission have become intertwined in a symbiotic relationship, and they jointly act to deprive (independent developers) the opportunity to develop renewable resources in Montana.”

The lawsuit, filed in state District Court in Great Falls, asks the court to block what it calls “discriminatory” actions by NorthWestern and the state Public Service Commission and award his companies damages.

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The Public Service Commission regulates NorthWestern and other electric utilities, and sets rates that NorthWestern must pay to certain independent power producers in Montana the sell their output to the utility.

PSC spokesman Chris Puyear acknowledged Monday that the commission has been setting lower rates and stricter contract terms for what NorthWestern pays the independent producers.

Yet he told MTN News that those rates reflect the regional market, which has an over-supply of electricity.

“In light of this environment of extremely over-supplied electricity prices, it simply might not be economical to build any project, whether it’s wind or solar or gas,” Puyear said.

He also said it’s misleading to compare the regulated price NorthWestern gets for its power to the price paid to independent producers. The NorthWestern price – about $60 per megawatt hour – is based on the cost of past investments by the company in many projects it owns or buys from, while the recent prices set for the producers – anywhere from $17 to $35 per mwh – are based on the current market, he said.

NorthWestern spokesman Butch Larcombe also told MTN News that the company is not trying to undermine independent projects, but merely seeking the best price it can negotiate when buying that power.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in a running battle between NorthWestern and the PSC and independent wind- and solar-power developers, who say the commission has taken a series of actions benefiting NorthWestern and harming the independents.

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