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Electricity agency predicts drought-filled summer could affect Montana's energy grid

A technician controls an electric switch board connecting homes to privately-owned electricity generators in a suburb of Baghdad on June 30, 2021 as the national electric grid experienced outages amidst a severe heat wave.

A new report from an electric grid regulatory authority shows Montana’s electric system could be vulnerable this summer to drought conditions and wildfires.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s assessment projects that drought conditions from June to September could hurt electricity delivery to customers by causing low snowmelt, weak hydropower production and increased wildfire risk throughout western states. According to the report, heatwaves affected electric grids in the west in both August 2020 and July 2021.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that as of March this year, more than 20% of western states are subject to drought conditions, and those conditions are most severe in Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Montana, and New Mexico.

NorthWestern Energy serves electricity to roughly 300,000 homes in Montana and generates about a third of its electricity from hydropower. Director of transmission market strategy Andrew McLain said the utility saw the effect of drought last year, but Montana experienced a less drastic version than its neighbor states to the west.

"The transmission system, while it’s vulnerable as we saw last year, really is designed to account for wildfire and myriad other related-weather challenges we have in Montana," McLain said.

He also said drought can lead to less energy supply overall and make the utility more reliant on buying energy from regional markets to meet customer demand.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.