Guest opinion: Dam purchase makes good sense for NWE's Montana customers

2014-04-17T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Dam purchase makes good sense for NWE's Montana customersBy DOROTHY BRADLEY The Billings Gazette
April 17, 2014 12:00 am  • 

I am a lifelong Montanan, was a state representative from Bozeman for 16 years, and reside in Clyde Park. I have had the honor and challenge of serving on the board of directors of NorthWestern Energy for the past five years.

I have had difficulty containing my enthusiasm for the company’s proposed purchase of the hydroelectric generating facilities from PPL Montana. It is a proposal which, in an amazing turn of events, would set right what most Montanans believe was a tragic business error in the late 1990s when the Montana Power Co. sold its generation and other assets to out-of-state corporations.

Intense negotiations

This hydro purchase agreement came after years of our harboring the vision, followed by many months of intense and skilled negotiations by our executive team. It was arrived upon after extraordinary due diligence; after assessing every dollar and choice involving debt, equity, timelines, and modeling; and checking out the state of the dams and their employees and infrastructure, which was excellent thanks to good stewardship by PPL. The board of directors, an independent board (meaning that we are not NorthWestern employees with the exception of our CEO, Bob Rowe), hired its own separate consultant for double assurance of the price, conditions, and all possible risks and consequences.

Renewable energy

Having always leaned to the environmental side of politics, I can’t help but be proud that with this acquisition, over 50 percent of our portfolio of owned and in-rate-base-generation will come from renewable energy – hydro or wind.

This may be setting a precedent in the world of regulated investor-owned utilities. More important, as a Montanan, I believe this is the best imaginable energy mix for our present and future customers. It will provide long-term affordability, stability and security; serve as an extra bonus to business; and minimize the world of risks which are about to descend on us.

I have felt an immense sense of dismay – actually, I was shocked – over the tone contained in the testimony of the out out-of-state consultants hired by the Montana Consumer Counsel.

I am finding that many Montana consumers are not even aware of this office, let alone its position in this regulatory proceeding. I helped implement the office in legislative sessions that followed the passage of the Montana Constitution in which it was mandated. The MCC was to be run as a legislative service with oversight provided by four legislators.

The Office of the Consumer Counsel is primarily funded by fees paid by regulated utilities, which are totally recouped from Montana ratepayers. I do not believe it is representing the position of Montana consumers. To the best of my knowledge, the Consumer Counsel has not held any hearings, run any polls, polled the legislators, or in any way searched out the sentiments of Montanans as to its position. While the overwhelming considerations are monetary, there is no doubt that there are policy considerations as well, and legislative and public opinion is paramount.

If the measures advanced by the Consumer Counsel consultants were adopted by the Montana Public Service Commission, it is my belief that the purchase of the hydro generation by NorthWestern Energy will be stopped cold.

As the only Montana representative on the NorthWestern board, I feel a particular responsibility to make sure Montanans know this. The position of the Consumer Counsel would most likely require NorthWestern Energy to continue to surf the market to supply the electricity we deliver, and leave Montana consumers forever without the hydropower we once had and could have again.

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