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Wilmot Collins delivers a protest letter to NorthWestern Energy

Helena Mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Wilmot Collins stands in the lobby of NorthWestern Energy with a letter protesting nonrenewable energy sources.

In a move designed to highlight renewable energy, Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, who is running as a Democrat for U.S. Senate, surprised NorthWestern Energy with an unannounced visit to hand-deliver a letter to Bob Rowe, president of the company.

According to Rowe’s executive assistant, Gayle Hunt, he was not in the office. Hunt came downstairs in Rowe’s absence and accepted the letter on his behalf. Brandy Powers, NWE spokesperson, said Rowe was working out of town Thursday.

Powers said it was a shame Montana’s biggest power company didn’t know ahead of time that Collins intended to pay a visit.

“It’s unfortunate that this happened the way it did,” Powers said in an email Thursday morning after Collins departure. “We would have welcomed an open conversation. We were not notified nor aware that Mayor Collins was stopping by today.”

The letter said NorthWestern Energy had not planned for a “post-Colstrip world.”

"Economic and social forces are driving a shift in our power sector away from energy sources like coal," the letter states.

Power plant operator Talen Energy, which is another Colstrip owner, recently announced that Colstrip Units 1 and 2 are no longer economical and will close at year’s end. Contracting for affordable coal has become an issue.

The economics of the oldest units, 1 and 2, have been perilous for years. Units 3 and 4 remain open. Colstrip is one of the largest coal-power plants in the region.

Collins spoke specifically to the $407 million bill Montana ratepayers are picking up until 2042 to pay for NWE’s purchase of 20 percent interest in Unit 4 in 2007.

"As mayor of Helena, it is my view that it would be fair and just for you to recalculate customer rates for NorthWestern Energy's portion of Colstrip Unit 4 based on NorthWestern's actual costs for that unit, rather than an obsolete and inflated market value," he wrote.

He said that if NWE obtained more power from renewable energy it would lower the rates. In his letter he cited the $700 million needed to remediate Colstrip in the future.

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The South Dakota-based power company has roughly 370,000 customers in Montana. Butte is NWE’s Montana headquarters.

Two Helena-based activists, Hannah Fisher and Melissa Hornbein, attended the press conference. They were both there on behalf of Moms Clean Air Force, a New York-based organization. Fisher and Hornbein said they were part of the Montana chapter.

“Renewables need to be the economic driver,” Hornbein said. “Coal is out.”

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David Merrill, senior organizing representative for Sierra Club, broadcast the entire event through Facebook Live in real time.

But Jo Dee Black, spokesperson for NWE, said the company would have felt it to be more productive had Collins reached out to them ahead of time.

“It is harmful when some politicians, environmental groups and others choose to sacrifice opportunities for meaningful, inclusive discussions about Montana’s energy future to pull off campaign stunts and hurl inflammatory, untruthful comments intended to villainize NorthWestern Energy to promote their own narrow agendas,” Black wrote.

Trent Bolger, Collins's campaign manager for his bid to unseat Sen. Steve Daines (R), said Collins attended on mayor’s business and that he was not campaigning for Senate with the press conference. Collins said during the conference he was there on behalf of Helena’s citizens.

Helena’s city commission adopted the goals of the Paris Climate Accord in June 2017. That was before Collins, a Liberian refugee, won election in November 2017.

Black said John Hines, NWE vice president of energy supply, spent two hours discussing the closure of Units 1 and 2 with the Montana Legislative Consumer Committee Wednesday and said this is a conversation all Montanans should be having.

But Black took a stern view of Collins's way of approaching the event.

“Montanans can’t afford to tolerate this behavior,” she said.

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Billings Gazette Reporter Tom Lutey contributed to this story.

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