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Colstrip power plant

The Colstrip power plant is shown in January 2019. 

On Friday, the Montana Public Service Commission agreed to listen to more of its constituents by adding three public meetings on the energy procurement plan submitted by NorthWestern Energy.

This is good news for the 370,000 Montana customers of the largest monopoly utility in the state. But let's hold the applause for our five-member elected PSC. They have a lot more work to do to hear from the public and open up this process of questioning, researching, commenting and holding NWE accountable for reliable, affordable power service.

Law requires the PSC to hold two public meetings on this plan for where NorthWestern will get power to meet Montana customers' energy needs. Inexplicably, the PSC scheduled both meetings for the same afternoon in Helena. So much for reaching out to the public or making the meeting accessible to distant constituents.

The two "required meetings" were held Monday afternoon with some Montanans braving icy, snowpacked roads to travel hundreds of miles to Helena.

Three more public meetings were added on Friday, including one in Missoula later this month and two in January:

  • 6 p.m. Jan. 2 at Billings Public Library, 510 N. Broadway.
  • 5 p.m. Jan. 3 at Lewistown Public Library, 701 Main Street.

Welcome as those opportunities are, the public is still getting shortchanged. The deadline for public comments is Jan. 3, the same day as the Lewistown meeting and the day after the Billings meeting. Issues raised at those meetings may well prompt further public comment, but on the present PSC schedule, those comments will be too late for consideration.

Further, it is important to know that public meetings regarding the NWE procurement plan aren't "on the record," which means there will be no written record of what the public says. Monday's meetings were live streamed; the meetings in Missoula, Billings and Lewistown should be live streamed, too. It is unclear how many commissioners will attend those three meetings. All five should attend all the meetings. If that is impossible, every commissioner should at least watch the meetings.

The PSC also should extend the deadline for written public comments at least a week after the Jan. 3 meeting in Lewistown.

According to a PSC staff memo, the commission has nine months from the time of the plan filing to issue its comments. The plan was filed in August, so commissioners need not rush to conclude public comment with their own deadline still months away.

NorthWestern ratepayers also should know that although a procurement plan is supposed to be filed every December in odd-numbered years, 2015 was the last year NWE filed one. The PSC raised significant concerns with the 2015 plan, including that it "did not sufficiently consider multiple sources of uncertainty that customers face, including uncertainties surrounding resource costs, capacity contributions, load forecasts, net energy metering, market price forecasts and the development of a regional market."

The plan filed in August fails to adequately address the future of NWE's stake in Colstrip Unit 4, which Montana customers are paying for right now and for decades to come, even though the plant is likely to shut down in five or six years. The other co-owners have committed to being ready to cease getting power from Colstrip by 2025, leaving open questions of who pays for shutdown, coal ash pond clean up and other pollution mitigation.

If you depend on power from NorthWestern Energy, let the Public Service Commission know what you think. Attend one of the meetings, submit written comments online at www.psc.mt.gov or mail to PSC, 1701 Prospect Ave. P.O. Box 202601, Helena MT 59620.  Give the elected commissioners a call or arrange for a meeting with your commissioner. Phone:

  • Chairman Brad Johnson of Helena at 444-6169.
  • Commissioner Randy Pinocci of Great Falls at 444-6166.
  • Commissioner Tony O'Donnell of Billings at 444-6165.
  • Commissioner Roger Koopman of Bozeman at 444-6168.
  • Vice-Chairman Bob Lake of Western Montana at 444-6167.

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