News & Features

Montana Debates Future Sources for Power Generation

NorthWestern plans to start acquiring new power generation this year through a competitive solicitation process

HELENA — Renewable energy and fossil fuel advocates made their case to Montana regulators Friday for how to boost the state’s electricity generation to make up for an expected drop in the region’s power supply as coal-fired plants are shut down in the coming years.

The Montana Public Service Commission held a crowded public hearing in the state Capitol and heard the state’s largest electricity supplier say it plans to add 725 megawatts of power generation by 2025.

NorthWestern Energy intends within two weeks to submit a draft of its Electricity Supply Resource Procurement Plan for the commission’s consideration, company vice president John Hines said. He presented a draft summary of the plan that made the case for the company’s need to increase its power generation but didn’t include details on power sources.

More than 3,500 megawatts of coal-fired electricity are expected to go offline in the Northwest in the coming years, company officials estimate. NorthWestern won’t be able to depend on buying electricity on the open market to make up for what it expects will be a 725-megawatt shortfall during peak customer demand using its current power facilities, Hines said.

NorthWestern plans to start acquiring new power generation this year through a competitive solicitation process from a variety of resources, he said.

Renewable energy advocates said that plan must emphasize wind, solar and hydro-generated power. Montana must plan now for a future without fossil fuels in its power generation portfolio, one after another person testified in the three-hour hearing.

But the renewable advocates suspect that NorthWestern wants to invest heavily in new natural gas-fired power plants. They warn that approach would just be substituting one dying power source — coal — for another — natural gas.

“That to me is the equivalent of investing in Blockbuster Video 10 years ago when you could have bought Netflix,” said NorthWestern customer Ari LeVaux.

Colstrip residents, workers and political leaders insisted that whatever plan the PSC approves, regulators must ensure that the state’s energy portfolio includes the cheap and reliable electricity from their coal-fired plant.

Thousands of jobs would be lost and the future of the small eastern Montana city would be in doubt if its largest employers, the plant and the coal mine that feeds it, shut down.

The plant provides power to Montana and the Pacific Northwest, and is co-owned by NorthWestern and five other companies that are based out of state. Colstrip’s two oldest units must be closed by July 2022 as part of a legal settlement in an environmental lawsuit, and residents worry that the newer units also will be shut down as Colstrip’s utility owners located in Washington and Oregon remove coal from their own power portfolios.

Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, said Montana should ignore Washington and Oregon when planning for Montana’s future power generation. Those states will eventually regret turning their backs on coal-powered electricity when customer costs rise, he said.

“When they want to cut us out of Washington, when they want to cut us out of Oregon, say yes,” Keane said. “Let’s leave these plants there, because they’re going to come back begging for those carbon electrons in about 15 years.”

The PSC will release NorthWestern’s draft plan for a 60-day public comment period once it is released.

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