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For once, the brain drain is working in reverse to Montana's advantage. At the end of this month, Roger L. Petersen, who negotiated PPL Corp.'s buyout of Montana Power Co.'s power plants and dams in 1999, is retiring and moving back to Montana.

He will use his 32 years of experience in U.S. and global energy projects as a springboard to a second career in consulting and serving on corporate boards. "Maybe I can help solve some of the problems in Montana," Petersen said. "And I'm looking forward to flying more."

Petersen currently serves as president of PPL Development Co. in Allentown, Pa., and is in charge of mergers and acquisitions.

In 1999, he moved to Billings to head PPL Montana's office. After he was promoted and transferred to corporate offices on the East Coast five years ago, the Petersens kept their home here and he commuted.

When his retirement takes effect June 30, the avid pilot will be driving back to Montana.

"In a few weeks, we'll be heading cross-country with my wife and our two college-age kids," he said.

His first goal will be accepting an offer to serve on the board of directors for an unnamed for-profit company. "Then I'm looking at working with the governor's office if I can help out in energy or business development," he said.

PPL President and Chief Operating Officer James Miller said Petersen's efforts to expand the reach of the former Pennsylvania Power & Light has helped the company grow to more than 5 million customers worldwide.

Buying Montana Power's dams and coal-fired assets in 1999 was the biggest expansion PPL has made, and Petersen was the point man.

The deal has been quite profitable for PPL, but the company won't say how profitable. Sales in Montana are merged with the overall corporate numbers.

Since Montana Power broke itself up and went out of business, customers' bills with the successor NorthWestern Energy have risen around 58 percent, according to one estimate.

When PPL started doing business in Montana, it sold power at 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour. Today's price to NorthWestern is confidential, he said. However, electricity today costs between 5 and 6 cents on the open market.

In the four years since NorthWestern came to Montana, executives have failed to negotiate long-term power contracts, which are cheaper. Lack of credit during bankruptcy was one reason the company couldn't negotiate better contracts.

PPL now supplies about 70 percent of the wholesale power NorthWestern needs for its Montana customers. The utility has no power plants of its own in Montana. When those contracts run out, NorthWestern customers will feel the change.

The state's second most pressing issue, he said, is finding long-term energy sources. This includes building more power plants or buying some. Another option, he said, is reversing deregulation: Building another Montana Power where power supply, transmission and distribution are housed in one company. "You won't put the genie back in the bottle, but there are options out there if people are willing to negotiate," he said.

The third challenge — and one Petersen said he'd like to work on — is Gov. Brian Schweitzer's coal program.

"Take the coal reserves we have and either gasify them or turn them into liquids," he said. "That can have a huge economic benefit for Montana."

The governor is talking about having a plant going in three years. Petersen said a project of this scope will take 10 years.

Finally, he takes a positive view of the pending $2.2 billion buyout of NorthWestern by Babcock & Brown Infrastructure, a subsidiary of an Australian company.

"I think they will probably be more business focused and less litigation focused," Petersen said.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1306.

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