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Empty coal cars sit on the tracks leading into Colstrip in 2016.

Gazette Staff

Stakeholders in Montana’s largest coal-fired power plant expect to operate Colstrip’s two least-dated units into the 2030s, even as consumers demand cleaner energy and the federal government softens the regulation of greenhouse gasses.

Three of Colstrip Power Plant’s six owners are being edged by climate change policy in Washington and Oregon, which is where most of the consumers live who are reliant on Colstrip power. The exodus is expected to begin in the early 2030s, with two utilities servicing Oregon — Portland General Electric and Pacificorp — under agreement to stop selling coal power to customers there.

Washington utilities Puget Sound Energy and Avista Corp. face consumer pressure to get out of Colstrip, but not a state mandate. Nonetheless, the plan for Puget Sound Energy is to get out of Colstrip in the 2030s as well.

“Our view of our future is that Puget Sound Energy involvement will be finished in the 2030s based on what we know now,” said Grant Ringel, a PSE spokesman.

PSE, based in Bellevue, Washington, has the largest Colstrip stake of the power plant’s six owners. The company owns half of the four-unit power plant’s two original generators, Units 1 and 2. It also owns a 25 percent share in Units 3 and 4, the least dated generators, which are equipped with better pollution controls.

Units 1 and 2 are scheduled to be shuttered no later than 2022, perhaps sooner as Colstrip stakeholder Talen Energy considers an earlier exit. Talen has said it is losing millions of dollars on the older units, of which the Pennsylvania utility, now owned by a holding company, has 50 percent ownership.

Among Colstrip’s supporters, who worry about the loss of more than 300 power plant jobs, and the future of the surrounding community that bears the power plant’s name, there’s always concern the power plant will close earlier than expected.

Those concerns were stirred Tuesday by a Seattle Times story about the power plant’s owner re-mediating a contract with the mine that supplies coal to Colstrip. The current contract with Westmoreland Coal Co. for coal from Rosebud Mine expires in 2019. The next contract, now being negotiated, would end in 2029. The power plant’s owners are asking that they be allowed to walk away from the deal before 2029 should demand change.

The power plant’s demand for coal will change as Units 1 and 2 shut down and demands for Colstrip power change, Ringel said, though Units 3 and 4 aren’t eyed for closure in the 2020s.

The 2030s will bring big changes, mostly likely beginning with the utilities selling power in Oregon.

PacificCorp, based in Salt Lake City, owns 10 percent of Colstrip Units 3 and 4. At 148 megawatts, PacifiCorp’s electricity from Colstrip is enough to power more than 100,000 homes. PacifiCorp is the smallest shareholder at the power plant.

In Oregon, PacifiCorp must stop selling coal power by 2030 because of the Oregon Clean Electricity and Coal Transition plan. However, PacifiCorp sells power in several Western states with no coal power restrictions.

PacifiCorp has indicated to Washington state regulators that it could be getting out of Colstrip as early as 2032 because of regulatory challenges.

Portland General Electric, Based in Portland, Oregon, owns 20 percent of Colstrip Units 3 and 4. At 296 net megawatt capacity, its power can light nearly 300,000 homes.

PGE is getting out of Colstrip by 2035. That’s the date set by an Oregon Clean Electricity and Coal Transition plan signed into law in March 2016. It’s a law PGE supported as an alternative to a citizen petition forcing Oregon utilities to cut coal power from their portfolios much sooner. It will begin tapering off coal power by 2025 and be almost off by 2030. Renewable energy must also be half of PGE’s portfolio by 2040.

In Washington, Puget Sound Energy faces consumer demand for power generated without producing greenhouse gasses. It has also agreed, in partnership with Talen Energy, to shutter Colstrip Units 1 and 2 in order to settle a pollution lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and Montana Environmental Information Center.

Consider this: Coal burning releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which then traps the sun's heat causing the earth to warm and climate conditions to change. Colstrip emits roughly 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases annually, according to EPA.

PSE’s 667-megawatt share of Colstrip capacity is enough to power more than 600,000 homes. Washington has created a law allowing PSE to nest egg money for the closure and clean up of Units 1 and 2. It has already estimated the cost of closing Units 1 and 2 at between $130 and $200 million, including environmental cleanup. The cost to customers of keeping Colstrip online is a big issue.

Avista Corp., based in Spokane, Washington, owns 15 percent of Colstrip Units 3 and 4. Unlike Puget Sound Energy, Avista Corp. hasn’t been under pressure by the state Legislature or its customers to get out of Colstrip. It was under pressure under the federal Clean Power Plan to cut its cord on coal power, but President Donald Trump has killed that environmental mandate. Consumer pressure in Washington state to cut ties to coal power, hasn’t gone away.

In Montana, the state’s largest regulated utility, NorthWestern Energy, owns 30 percent of Colstrip Unit 4 and has an agreement for power from Unit 3 if needed. Like Avista, NorthWestern Corp. hasn’t been under pressure by the state government or its customers to get out of Colstrip. It has insisted Units 3 and 4 will last into the 2040s.


Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.