The Future of Energy in Montana

Energy and economic security in our state remains uncertain

By Bob Lake

The state of Montana is blessed with an abundance of energy resources. We have areas of high quality wind and solar opportunities, and we have one of the nation’s largest reserves of high-quality coal, plus new reserves of natural gas. The recent announcement of the complete shutdown of Colstrip units 1 and 2 was met with a few celebrations in some areas of Montana, but a great deal of concern in the community of Colstrip and the surrounding area. One thing is abundantly clear: energy and economic security in our state remains uncertain.

Consider a few of the fallouts from the closure. It will make the operation of units 3 and 4 more expensive because of the economic rule of efficiency in size. The loss of jobs both in the mining and plant operation, plus the loss of income tax, property taxes and reduction in the coal severance taxes will have significant impact to local revenues, school revenues and the many recipients of the coal-tax trust fund.

The effects do not stop there. The main 500kv transmission line that runs from Colstrip to the west coast population centers could possibly cease operation when Colstrip 1 and 2 close. If a transmission line does not have a full capacity of electricity available, the line will not work at all. If that happens, one of the causalities could very well be the REC plant in Butte that employs 100-plus well-paid individuals. REC is the largest consumer of Colstrip power in Montana. They produce the raw material used to make solar panels. The closure of REC could very well increase the cost of solar panels and would make solar energy more expensive.

The loss of tax revenue, a core industry and exports to the state economy is difficult to deal with, however, the devastation to the families, the schools and the community of Colstrip is the greatest travesty. Colstrip and the state of Montana lose the most in this battle. If we discover one day that we have the opportunity to host an industry that would employ Montanans, pay strong wages, contribute to our tax base, but could not locate here because of our lack of base load generation, all of Montana would suffer.

Fortunately, Montana has the comfort of a fleet of hydroelectric facilities, along with the Colstrip thermal generation, that provide the base load required to make the intermittent power supplied by the renewables useable. This is imperative, as Montana ratepayers must have reliable and affordable electricity 24/7.

Montana has the greatest opportunity for energy generation in the nation. All we need to accept is that every source of power must be considered. We have large coal, natural gas and oil reserves, an abundant area of wind and solar potential, and a labor force that is ready to go to work. Given the opportunity, our young people are anxious to stay here in Big Sky Country and contribute to the future of Montana.

The bottom line is, we all need to be objective and honest with ourselves. We need all sources of generation to keep costs under control. Montana is far too special of a place to allow personal bias or ideology to limit any source of energy generation. Lower energy costs help our seniors, our less fortunate, our young families, our schools, our public buildings and businesses. Together we can continue to live, work and prosper in this amazing state of ours.

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