- Associated Press - Saturday, May 10, 2014

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - A legislative panel that has jurisdiction over the regulators considering a NorthWestern Energy plan to buy 11 hydroelectric dams from PPL Montana has unanimously endorsed the $900 million deal.

The Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee voted Friday during a meeting in Great Falls to send a letter to the Public Service Commission endorsing NorthWestern’s application, the Great Falls Tribune reported (gftrib.com/1fV4oeE).

“This is a very large scale, almost monumental subject, and to have a unanimous vote is somewhat unusual,” said Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, chairman of the committee.

The committee has jurisdiction over the PSC, the regulatory body that will decide whether the purchase goes forward. The committee’s opinion will carry weight with the commission, along with public testimony and evidence under already under review, PSC Chairman Bill Gallagher said.

The PSC has set aside two weeks beginning July 8 for a hearing on the sale in Helena, Gallagher said. A final decision is due in September.

“Just in terms of numbers and impacts, it’s certainly the case of the decade,” Gallagher said.

The dams are on the Missouri, Madison, Flathead and Clark Fork rivers and West Rosebud Creek. They were owned by the Montana Power Co. until PPL bought them during deregulation in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Combined, the 11 dams have capacity to generate 633 megawatts of electricity, or as much as a large coal-fired power plant.

NorthWestern is the largest electric and natural gas utility in Montana, with 342,000 electricity customers in the state. The company announced the deal in September, saying the dams will provide an affordable, long-term supply of electricity for customers.

The Montana Consumer Counsel has warned the deal could shift millions of dollars onto consumers unless more risk for the cost of the purchase is assumed by the utility.

The Federal Trade Commission already has ruled the purchase does not violate antitrust laws.

___

Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com