NorthWestern Energy customers spoke against the utility’s plans to buy more of Colstrip Power Plant during a Public Service Commission listening session Tuesday that most commissioners didn’t attend.
The listening session, intended to gather public input about the utility’s plans to buy an additional 12.5% share of Colstrip Unit 4, was dominated by opposition to the power plant purchase and frustration with commissioners who scheduled the online meeting and then didn’t show up.
One commenter noted the salary for commissioners tasked with balancing the customers’ costs with the utility’s right to a fixed rate of return earn, is $109,000 a year.
“I actually find it actually really disrespectful,” said Hester Dillon. “As the call started, I was thinking ‘it’s a lot like being stood up.’ And that actually feels really offensive in a public setting where the Public Service commissioners are charged with looking after the public interest, which includes listening to the public. Setting up a listening session and then not attending actually sends a message.”
The commissioners absent were PSC Chairman Bob Lake, of Hamilton, Brad Johnson, of Helena, and Randy Pinocci, of Sun River. Tony O’Donnell, of Billings, and Roger Koopman, of Bozeman did attend. All five commissioners are Republican.
No customer spoke in favor NorthWestern increasing its ownership of Unit 4, in which the utility currently owns a 30% share. Most said they favored renewable energy and energy storage. Customers said they worried about being stuck with Colstrip expenses as the power plant’s other four utility owners prepared to exit as early as 2025.
Most of the southeast Montana power plant's electricity is consumed in Oregon and Washington where its owners face state-level deadlines to stop using coal power. Power plant owners Puget Sound Energy, Avista Corp. and PacifiCorp face a Washington coal power ban starting in 2026. PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric face bans on coal power starting in 2030. Portland General Electric is closing its Boardman Power Plant in Oregon this fall.
In Washington, the utilities have told regulators that getting out of coal power makes economic sense, even without coal power bans on the horizon. Renewable energy, hydropower and natural gas-fired power plants produce cheaper energy, they report.
The share NorthWestern Energy has agreed to purchase belongs to Puget Sound Energy, a Seattle-area utility with the largest ownership share in the coal-fired power plant. Puget wants to sell its 25% share of Unit 4. Power plant co-owners NorthWestern and Talen Energy have each signed purchase sales agreements and would split the 185 megawatts of Unit 4 capacity.
Puget has agreed to sell its Unit 4 interest for the aggregate price of $1, though it puts the value of the share at $85 million, which it would try to recover from its customers. The Washington utility has also agreed to buy coal power from NorthWestern and Talen at above-market price for five years. Puget tells Washington regulators it can get out of Colstrip under the terms of the deal, which include paying for environmental cleanup post sale, and still be better off financially than it would be if it kept its Unit 4 share.
Last week, Washington’s consumer advocate and the investigative staff of the state’s Utility and Transportation Commission came out in opposition to Puget’s plans, which they said would cost customers money. They also objected to Puget’s plans to sell Colstrip transmission line capacity, arguing the line would be needed to move Montana renewable energy in coming years.
NorthWestern customers told the commissioners who showed up that there were too many unknowns about the bills customers would have to pay related to the new share. A year ago, Puget documents revealed the superheated section of the Unit 4 boiler needs $20 million in repairs, by Puget's estimates. By pre-approving NorthWestern’s planned purchase, the Public Service Commission would be committing Montana customers to covering Colstrip costs that haven’t been disclosed.
“The plant is a liability and both Puget Sound Energy and NorthWestern Energy are treating it as such,” said Mary Fitzpatrick, of Billings. “PSE wants to offload this hot potato and will share its transmission capacity only if the buyer takes Colstrip off its hands. The transmission capacity has real value to NorthWestern Energy and it may also serve Montana ratepayers, or it may not. But the Colstrip plant is a liability, which is why PSE wants to give it away and NorthWestern wants ratepayers to take all the risk while the company keeps all the goodies.”
NorthWestern argues that it is buying too much power on the open market. Market power has been considerably cheaper than Colstrip power for NorthWestern’s Montana customers, but the utility says coal power has a reliability that it needs and it predicts a shortage in reliable energy as other coal-fired power plants in the region close.
Conversely, Puget has been contracting for firm hydropower in Montana, from the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes, as well as the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest.
There will be two more listening sessions concerning the Unit 4 purchase, one on Oct. 20, another on Oct. 27. The meetings begins at 4 p.m. and can last as long as 8 p.m. However, Tuesday’s meeting was over before the workday ended for most people. When the line cleared at 5:05 p.m., commissioners closed the meeting early.