Montana Electric Co-ops Worry About Cost of Cap-and-Trade

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Montana’s electric cooperatives say they are nervously watching congressional work on climate change laws.

The cooperatives serve roughly 250,000 Montana homes and businesses and rely on coal power — which could become expensive under proposed greenhouse gas caps and pay-to-pollute policies.

Cooperatives east of the Continental Divide rely on coal for as much as 80 percent of their power supply.

“We have two sources for power, Basin Electric out of North Dakota and the Western Area Power Administration, WAPA. We get 39 percent of our power from WAPA. The rest is out of Basin, which is mostly coal,” said Rick Nick, manager of Sheridan Electric Cooperative in northeast Montana. “We don’t know how it is going to wash out if they auction off credits to offset a ton of carbon. At whatever cost, it’s going to affect about 60 percent of our power. The cost of electricity is going to go up.”

That has led electric co-ops to pressure Congress. Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative says it collected roughly 2,000 postcards from its 14,000 members that urge Montana’s delegation to keep energy affordable.

Proponents and opponents offer wildly different estimates on how much the legislation would cost a consumer.

NorthWestern Energy is reserving judgment on the legislation, said Claudia Rapkoch, company spokeswoman. That company estimates rate increases of 19 to 47 percent.

“It’s a discussion that the country is going to have to balance the issue of climate change with the customers’ ability to pay their bills,” Rapkoch said. “It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.”