NorthWestern Energy’s plans to buy more of Colstrip are lacking details and should be sent back to the drawing board, according to a legal team representing Montana consumers.
Arguing that NorthWestern had failed to prove that buying more of Colstrip is in the public interest, Montana Consumer Counsel Bob Nelson asked that the utility be required to show analysis supporting the move.
Until those details are produced, the review of NorthWestern's plans should be paused, Nelson said. He asked that the process start over once NorthWestern complies. Created by the Montana Constitution, the Consumer Counsel is a customer advocate in monopoly utility matters.
At issue is NorthWestern’s planned purchase of an additional 25% of Colstrip Unit 4. Nothing prevents the utility from buying the share outright, but NorthWestern would like its Montana customers pre-committed to covering costs associated with the larger share, many of which remain undisclosed.
That preapproval shifts the unknown risks of the Colstrip purchase from NorthWestern to its 374,000 Montana customers, Nelson said. Because of that shift, more should be disclosed about the potential pitfalls.
“For the vast majority of work papers submitted by NorthWestern, the source of the information relied on is not provided, the analysis is incomplete, or is based on unsupported assumptions,” Nelson wrote in his comments to Montana’s Public Service Commission.
The PSC, charged with balancing the interests of customers and monopoly utilities, will decide whether preapproval is warranted. NorthWestern said in an email Monday afternoon that it will respond to Nelson’s comments by week’s end.
Among the issues raised by Nelson is the scant, or nonexistent, discussion by NorthWestern about why the seller of the 25% stake in Unit 4, Puget Sound Energy, is getting out. Puget, a Seattle-area utility, faces a 2025 Washington deadline to stop including the costs of coal power in its rates. The deadline is well known, but what’s not discussed in NorthWestern’s request for preapproval are Puget’s assessment of the state of unit it wants to sell out of.
The Puget assessment cited by Nelson reads: “The benefit of the coal-fired generation has increasingly been eroded over the past decade. Coal-fired generating units face increasing compliance costs in light of declining electricity market prices due to increased competition from low-cost natural gas generation and increasing penetration of renewable resources. At the same time, the costs of maintaining and operating Colstrip Unit 4 continues to escalate.”
The Consumer Counsel went on to raise issues about the $20 million in needed repairs to the superheated section of the Unit 4 boiler, which hadn’t been mentioned by NorthWestern in its preapproval application. The future cost of the coal to fuel the unit also needs to be addressed.