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Outgoing NorthWestern CEO on future of Montana's energy industry

A sign reading "NorthWestern Energy" in silver type against a tan woodgrain background.
Nora Saks
Montana Public Radio

The CEO of Montana’s largest electric utility is retiring at the end of the year. Bob Rowe spent 14 years with NorthWestern Energy, which provides electric and gas services to 750,000 customers in Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

Yellowstone Public Radio’s Kayla Desroches spoke with him about his time with the company, changes in Montana’s energy industry and solar energy.

This interview has been edited for length.

Kayla Desroches: When you look back at the years since you joined the company, what achievements and challenges stand out to you?

Bob Rowe: One of the first areas that I focused was on

our distribution infrastructure. That's the low power electric lines, low pressure natural gas lines. And we've thoughtfully invested in that infrastructure, added to that focus on our transmission infrastructure, and then ultimately supply.

So the second area I think would probably be that delivery infrastructure.

Third area, coming out of the tragedy around deregulation, rebuilding a significant portion of the fleet that serves Montana and, that is in particular, the hydro system.

What trends have you observed in the world of Montana energy since you joined NorthWestern in 2008?

There some real positives and some negatives as well. There have been, I think, significant technology advances in a number of areas, and there are some technology advances that we're paying attention to. The change that we need to be the most concerned about is that in terms of serving our core customers and Montana overall - historically Montana was a strong net exporter of energy, and that obviously was to the benefit of the state in a great many ways.

We were able to meet our needs as a state and were able to generate for export. Now, at peak times, we are a significant net importer and that's a real risk. So, it’s a reliability concern, but it's also a pricing concern. And we are in that regional market purchasing power on behalf of our customers at the very times when that market is the most costly and power is the hardest to come by.

So that is a huge risk in terms of both reliability and and price, and we are effectively agents for our customers. That's the very sober warning and to think about where we go in the future, the the current generation of resources - and I'll be very direct - that includes our 222 megawatts at Colstrip are extremely important to manage through the longerterm transition in a responsible way to get to the next generation of resources.

Last year, nearly 60% of Northwestern's Montana portfolio is carbon free, roughly 24% from owned and contracted wind power and nearly 35% from hydropower and less than 1% from solar power. What is NorthWestern's degree of interest in building out utility-scale, solar power generation, and what barriers does it face?

Solar can be a very good energy resource. It is challenging on its own as a capacity resource in terms of - when I talk about a capacity resource, to what degree can you count on it? As a dispatchable resource that you can turn up and down as demand on your system changes.

One of the unique things that we've been developing through pilot projects, and are starting in a more meaningful way now, is our rural reliability resource project.

So, what we are beginning to to do is couple local storage out in the system with automated controls and in some cases then with solar, and the primary focus is to improve reliability. And then beyond that, we actually have signed a number of solar contracts for projects that we expect will be coming on our system. So, the bottom line to me is every technology has strengths and weaknesses, costs and benefits, and the challenge is putting those together in a portfolio of resources to do the job that needs to be done, to meet our customers' needs.

Thank you so much for your time today, I appreciate it.

Thank you very much.

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