HELENA, Mont. — The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is being asked to step in after Montana officials suspended payment for solar projects until a rate structure can be determined.

The Montana Environmental Information Center and Vote Solar filed a complaint after the Public Service Commission decided to review standard rates for small solar energy developers in Montana.

Supporters say the commission violated federal regulations that encourage renewable energy production and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

“That rate has now been taken off the table when projects were in their late stages,” said Brian Fadie, clean energy program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center. “It undercuts solar development in Montana at the moment.”

He said three developers had 43 projects each moving forward with power purchase agreements at 3 megawatts, which would have meant a lot more electric power in Montana.

Public Service Commission spokesman Eric Sell said the panel’s decision is temporary and a hearing on new rates could come as early as January.

Sell said the projects were put on hold to make sure consumers are not overpaying, the Great Falls Tribune reported (http://tinyurl.com/z7otkpg).

Butch Larcombe, NorthWestern Energy spokesman, said the commission is acting in the best interest of about 360,000 electric customers.

“The rate that would have been paid to these out-of-state producers was far too high, he said. “We think the PSC action could save our customers millions in future rates through its decision.”

Commission Vice-chairman Travis Kavulla said smaller projects should have the opportunity to obtain contracts at rates that represent the best estimate of what a utility itself would have to spend to supply energy and capacity

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