September 22, 2008

NWE Boosts Heating Programs

By Dennison, Mike

HELENA - The state's largest electric and natural-gas utility is giving $500,000 to programs helping poor customers deal with high energy bills, and the chairman of the state Public Service Commission is calling on energy producers to do the same.

NorthWestern Energy announced this week that it will donate $200,000 each to Energy Share of Montana and to a state home weatherization program and $100,000 to the Montana Food Bank Network.

"We understand that rising energy prices are pinching Montanans, and those with the lowest incomes are among the hardest hit, because they typically live in homes that are the least energy-efficient," said Bob Rowe, NorthWestern president.

Shortly after NorthWestern's announcement, Public Service Commissioner Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, issued a statement applauding the company's efforts.

He also said companies profiting the most from high energy prices - the unregulated electricity and natural-gas suppliers - should provide assistance. He said he'll send a letter next week to suppliers asking them to match NorthWestern's donations.

Natural-gas prices for residential consumers in Montana already are hitting $13 to $14 per dekatherm.

Electricity prices also have been increasing. Some electricity consumers in Eastern Montana are served by Montana-Dakota Utilities, which has fully regulated rates. But NorthWestern Energy buys electricity for its 300,000-plus electric customers on the unregulated, open market and passes those costs onto consumers. It buys power from PPL

Montana, which owns plants and hydroelectric dams in Montana and sells wholesale power at unregulated prices.

David Hoffman, spokesman for PPL Montana, said Tuesday that the company hadn't seen Jergeson's statement or his request and declined to comment. He noted that PPL already donates about $50,000 a year to Energy Share of Montana, spends about $100,000 a year on grants for community projects, and spends "millions" on recreation sites and restoration work near the rivers that power its hydroelectric dams.

Some of those expenditures are required as part of the company's federal power license. The company also has a trust fund to finance river and wetlands projects, Hoffman said.

Fidelity Exploration and Production Co. didn't respond to a request for comment.

Copyright Billings Gazette Aug 21, 2008

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