Guest Column

Time for Accountability

Montanans don’t want to pay millions of dollars to soothe Wall Street egos

By Monica Tranel

Two notable events just occurred: the Public Service Commission’s blessing of NorthWestern Corporation’s 28% rate hike; and extreme cold.

28% rate hike

The all-Republican Commission approved a 28% rate hike, the majority of which falls on small businesses and residential users – renters and homeowners. The Commission rejected our challenge to that rate hike, forcing Montanans to gift Wall Street $3,447,870 every year. We pay our monthly bills based on a pretend cost of debt for Colstrip of 6.5%. In fact, NorthWestern’s actual cost of debt is about 4%. The difference, $3,447,870, is money Montanans are sending to NorthWestern’s Wall Street owners every year as pure profit (a gift, above the 10% profit they are allowed to earn on the capital cost of the Colstrip plant).

Do you like NorthWestern’s billboards touting “renewable energy”? You’re paying for them, even while NorthWestern claims renewable energy doesn’t work and we’ll all freeze to death if we rely on it. We pay NorthWestern profit on a coal plant whether it runs or not, which NorthWestern justifies by telling us renewable energy doesn’t work. We then pay NorthWestern to advertise to us about its renewable portfolio, to make its executives feel better about themselves because they don’t want to be perceived as a dirty utility. Montanans don’t want to pay millions of dollars to soothe Wall Street egos.

The cold snap

NorthWestern claims that Colstrip is essential to keeping us all from freezing to death. It now claims that had it just been operating the Yellowstone Gas Plant during the cold snap it would not have had to buy power from other utilities. Nowhere does NorthWestern show us a head-to-head comparison of costs for power from the grid as compared to the cost to Montanans of paying for power that is owned by Wall Street. 

NorthWestern’s motive is money. The bigger the kingdom, the bigger the king. NorthWestern makes a lot of money off of plants that it owns and operates – whether they are running or not. When Colstrip isn’t generating power – and in January, it was not generating power at full capacity – we still pay NorthWestern’s Wall Street owners the full cost of owning the plant plus a profit on the plant. What business owner in Montana pays full price – plus a hefty profit to the seller – for half the product? NorthWestern claims that Colstrip was down for “scheduled maintenance.” Pretty hard to justify owning and operating a coal plant for the cold weather and “schedule” maintenance during January.

Most troubling of all is the total failure of our elected officials to do their jobs. NorthWestern’s corporate PAC contributes to Ryan Zinke’s campaign while he voted to cut funding for low-income heating assistance by more than 75%. If our elected officials won’t hold NorthWestern accountable, let’s hold our elected officials accountable. Let’s vote for people who will work for the people, and put the interests of our communities above profits for monopoly corporations. 

Monica Tranel is an attorney and a Democratic candidate for Montana’s Western District for U.S. Congress.

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