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Concern about the climate crisis may be what’s driving utilities to embrace clean energy in some parts of the country. But right here in the Mountain West the transition away from burning fossil fuels for electricity is just a matter of dollars and cents. Montana’s largest utility, Northwestern Energy, seems to have missed the memo.

No one would accuse Idaho of being far-left environmentalists, but earlier this year that state’s largest utility made a bold announcement: they’re committing to move to 100% clean energy by 2045. In the near-term, Idaho Power announced an earlier exit from the North Valmy coal plant, with that electricity being replaced by a huge new solar farm at a record low price.

More recently Wyoming utility and Colstrip co-owner PacifiCorp submitted a long-range plan that determined that the most affordable choice for its customers was earlier retirements of several aging coal plants, paired with a massive investment in wind and solar across multiple states, as well as energy storage solutions like batteries and pumped hydro.

This region-wide move towards cheaper, cleaner energy makes NorthWestern Energy’s recently released long-range plan for Montana all the more puzzling.

NorthWestern’s Resource Procurement Plan predicts that Colstrip Units 3 and 4 will run into the 2040s, though the plant's co-owners are prepping to leave as soon as 2025 amid escalating maintenance, fuel and operations costs. The plan also contradicts what NorthWestern is saying in public - the company’s vice president was quoted in a Bozeman Daily Chronicle story predicting that Colstrip Units 3 and 4 will retire "within a decade." This lack of planning puts NorthWestern customers at risk of sudden rate hikes and puts Colstrip workers and residents at risk of a sudden closure without an adequate plan for economic transition.

The precarious economics at the plant make NorthWestern’s recent attempts to buy a larger share of Colstrip all the more concerning. Earlier this year the utility nearly succeeded in convincing the Montana state legislature to let them buy the Colstrip plant and automatically pass on any higher costs to customers without any oversight. The bill was eventually scuttled by fiscally conservative Republicans concerned about electricity rate increases; the Montana Consumer Council has found that electricity from Colstrip is roughly three times the price of Montana wind projects.

In their response to the draft version of this resource plan, the Montana Public Service Commission asked NorthWestern to show their math on why buying more Colstrip power would be in the best interests of customers. The final plan ignores this request, leaving the public and state regulators in the dark.

Given the lack of transparency and NorthWestern’s repeated attempts to go it alone in running Colstrip, we’re concerned that the utility may be trying yet again. Colstrip workers deserve help, but making every Montana family and business pay more for electricity isn’t a fair or sustainable way to do that. Instead, NorthWestern and its shareholders should follow the lead of out-of-state co-owners like Puget Sound Energy and Avista and help fund economic diversification efforts in Colstrip. Making sure that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality requires a robust clean up plan for the leaking, toxic coal ash ponds would also mean more jobs for displaced coal workers for decades to come.

The resource plan also confirms comments the company made to its investors indicating that it would seek to build four 200-megawatt gas plants in the coming years, together estimated to cost close to a billion dollars. Though utilities just across state lines are finding that clean energy and storage solutions are cheaper than building new fossil fuels, Northwestern claims that clean energy would cost $523 million more than new gas plants.

How could the economics of clean energy compared to gas plants be so different in Montana than Idaho or Wyoming? We’ll never know - like with the buying Colstrip scheme, NorthWestern refuses to publicly disclose the assumptions it’s using in its internal modelling.

The Public Service Commission is taking public comment on NorthWestern’s plan through Jan. 3. You can weigh in by emailing psc_utilitycomment@mt.gov. The commission will also hold a public hearing on Dec. 9 in Helena. Montana has a long history of having to clean up after risky bets by its utilities. Let’s not let NorthWestern Energy burden Montana families and businesses with the same mistakes, again.

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Mike Scott is a Billings-based senior campaign Representative for the Sierra Club. David Merrill is a Missoula-based representative for the Sierra Club.

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