Embracing the challenge of climate change doesn't mean hating coal. Yet science and the market indicate that Montana must rely more on alternatives to coal in the near future.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that natural gas-fired power and wind energy will be the fastest growing sources of U.S. electricity generation this year and next. According to EIA's September Short-term Energy Outlook, the agency "expects the share of U.S. total utility-scale electricity generation from natural gas-fired power plants will rise from 34% in 2018 to 37% in 2019 and 38% in 2020. EIA forecasts that the share of U.S. generation from coal will average 25% in 2019 and 22% in 2020, down from 28% in 2018. EIA’s forecast nuclear share of U.S. generation remains at about 20% in 2019 and in 2020. Hydropower averages a 7% share of total U.S. generation in the forecast for 2019 and 2020, similar to 2018. Wind, solar, and other nonhydropower renewables together provided 10% of U.S. total utility-scale generation in 2018. EIA expects they will provide 10% in 2019 and 12% in 2020."
Natural gas is cheaper and less polluting than coal — two major factors in the swing from coal-fired to gas-fired electricity generation.
The two oldest and smallest Colstrip units are scheduled to shut down permanently at year's end. Colstrip has opportunities for new energy-related jobs. Clean up and reclamation will create jobs that last for a generation. Millions of dollars in federal grants and funds from a Colstrip owner have been offered to retrain workers and otherwise assist the community. Complete mitigation of leaking coal ash ponds is expected to take 30 years.
Meanwhile, Orion Renewable Energy Corp. has proposed a $500 million wind farm to be built east of Colstrip near the Custer County line. That development would generate enough electricity to power 300,000 homes. The proposed wind farm would transmit its power on the transmission lines that now carry coal-fired power from Colstrip.
Other communities have welcomed wind and solar energy developments, which add to the tax base, create jobs and generate lease revenues for the private landowners or the public, depending on whether the wind turbines and power lines are placed on private or public lands.
The $406 million project Pacificorp wind farm is starting construction near Bridger in Carbon County. It is expected to produce enough energy to power more than 76,000 homes on an annual basis.
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The proposed Gordon Butte Pumped Hydro project would invest $1 billion in Meagher County and produce up to 400 megawatts of power.
NorthWestern Energy has proposed building multiple gas-fired plants and proposed jacking up charges to customers who install their own solar panels. However, this summer NWE struck a deal with the 20-megawatt Meadowlark solar project near Billings that would help fulfill NWE's obligation under Montana law to get a portion of its power from small (under 25 megawatts) renewable energy projects. The $18 million Meadowlark Solar is expected to come online in 2021. This spring NWE signed a contract with Allete Clean Energy to develop a 30-turbine, 80-megawatt wind farm near Spion Kop, a 40-megawatt wind farm NorthWestern owns near Great Falls. NorthWestern has other wind energy contracts in its portfolio.
Montana has tremendous potential for renewable energy production. Colstrip has the transmission lines to deliver that power as it now delivers coal-fired power.
Montana's out of state customers on the West Coast demand less polluting energy production, which also is expected to be less expensive than what Montanans are paying now for Colstrip power. Montana electric customers shouldn't be left behind; we deserve the benefits of a competitive alternative energy market.
Colstrip won't be left behind either. That town can capitalize on its transmission infrastructure and its geography to replace part of its coal-related industry with renewable energy. Montana power can keep flowing to the Pacific Northwest.
A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last week found that 79% of U.S. adults surveyed said human activity is causing climate change. Only 12% said the United States doesn't need to reduce fossil fuel use to deal with climate change.
Here in coal country, there is more skepticism about the links between a warming climate and the fuels that have powered our economy for generations. But Montana and Wyoming residents should not deny the facts: The speed of change is alarming. We must get politics out of climate change discussions. We must focus on on science and start moving moving forward.