September will be an historic month when our state’s regulatory body, the Public Service Commission, determines whether Montana’s hydro generating dams will pass from Pennsylvania Power and Light to NorthWestern Energy, and be dedicated to serve Montana customers at prices based on cost.
To the commission’s great credit, its proceedings included 17 public listening sessions, the exchange of massive documents, and two weeks of hearings. The commission knows this decision will guide the future of electric service in Montana.
I hope Montanans who support dedicating these great assets to serve Montana have expressed their views, because the commissioners are genuinely interested in what Montanans have to say. The bottom line is whether Montana utility customers should receive the power generated by these assets.
However, significant environmental considerations are also at stake, including 700 miles of shore front and water surface that is 16 percent of Montana. The water rights are among our most senior. We are all water users. We should ask ourselves whom we want to control these precious rights. NorthWestern is the largest investor in Montana infrastructure, is building a solid environmental record, and is the only possible acquirer that would be so completely accountable to Montana.
Some of the most compelling testimony during the Public Service Commission’s proceedings came from UM adjunct professor Dr. Tom Power, representing the Missoula Human Resource Council and a natural resources organization – independent interveners. In concluding briefs they caution us to keep sight of the big picture and not get lost in the “fog of details.” They unequivocally conclude that approving the deal makes sense for Montana customers.
The big picture is this:
- The fuel for hydro power is free. Not surprisingly, this permanent source of power will be cheaper than other kinds of generation once the dams are paid for. We all care a lot about the Montana we will be leaving for our grandchildren. This matters. - With this acquisition, more than 50 percent of NorthWestern’s portfolio of owned and in-rate-base generation will be renewable. Few other regulated utilities can beat that. This matters.
- With that quantity of in-state generated clean energy, less will have to be purchased by NorthWestern on the market where prices are out of our control. Stable rates matter.
Because PPL is not a regulated utility in Montana, the price and terms had to make sense for both for PPL and for NorthWestern’s customers. Each side did its own massive study of the “deal” ensuring an appropriate fit. NorthWestern’s first offer to PPL was rejected out-of-hand. Thankfully, another proposal was made and accepted. In my opinion, it was brilliant — and best of all was that PPL’s coal facilities were segregated, allowing NorthWestern to acquire just the resources it needed to serve its needs and to further diversify.
Several weeks ago I visited the Madison Dam located in the stunning Bear Trap Canyon. It’s the oldest and smallest of the facilities that will be acquired. The equipment was polished to a spit shine. The employees who operate it are dedicated professionals. They are eager to know that their work will soon be directly serving their fellow Montanans. I enthusiastically look forward to that day.