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Environment & Science

Environmental Advocates Push Back Against Montana Utility Plan

A sign reading "NorthWestern Energy" in silver type against a tan woodgrain background.
Nora Saks
/
Montana Public Radio
Montana’s largest utility is in the planning process that informs how it acquires energy over the next two decades.";

Editor's Note 12/10: This story expands upon previous reporting on the same topic from Dec. 09.

Montana's largest utility company says it needs to nearly double its electricity generation to keep up with customer demands for power during winter freezes and summer heatwaves.

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NorthWestern Energy’s long-term plan for electricity supply in the state is now in front of regulators for review. Critics said Monday the plan leans too heavily on fossil fuels, but the company says renewable energy alternatives are too expensive and unreliable.

The Montana Public Service Commission took public comment Monday on NorthWestern Energy’s long-term electricity supply plan.

The plan is a projection and includes NorthWestern’s analysis of the most cost effective and reliable way to meet energy demands in the state.

Northwestern Energy economist Ben Fitch-Fleischmann said the company looked at many different models of energy production.

“What our plan finds is it typically selects - when we do the optimization model and say, we’ve got these scenarios, what resources are selected to meet our needs? It typically selects natural-gas fired peaking unit,” he said.

According to a NorthWestern Energy overview, the plan outlines a gas-reliant model that prioritizes affordability and reliability with a need to solicit bids for more company-owned power-generation resources.

The plan shows NorthWestern is consistently under capacity when trying to meet the peak customer demand of 1,400 megawatts, and it buys heavily from the market. The company says it purchased about half of its peak requirement this year.

NorthWestern aims to change that. The plan outlines its intention to add 200 megawatts of capacity per year with a goal of 725 extra megawatts by 2025.

NorthWestern says it will consider a variety of energy sources to hit that goal but added renewable energy is less capable of meeting peak energy needs than natural gas and is currently more expensive. Sixty-one percent of its power currently comes from wind, solar and hydro generation.

Around 50 protesters stood outside the Public Service Commission office in Helena before Monday’s public comment meeting. They called for regulators to push NorthWestern Energy away from fossil-fuel based energy sources.

Jeff Smith with the activist group 350 Montana helped organize the rally.

“We can make this transition from carbon-based energy to 100 percent renewable clean energy in the next several years,” he said.

After the rally, about 30 people headed inside to give public comment advocating for the development of renewable energy infrastructure and use.

They talked about the need to increase clean energy to head-off the damage of climate change and urged the PSC to reject the plan based on its failure to fully incorporate renewable energy into future power development plans.

They expressed dismay that NorthWestern intends to continue investing in the Colstrip power plant despite an apparent trend in utilities switching from coal to renewable energy.

No one who gave public comment spoke in support of the plan.

PSC Commissioner Roger Koopman said regulators won’t vote up or down on NorthWestern’s plan, but in the coming months commissioners will publicly comment on it.

“[The] plan is sort of a road map,” he said. “It isn’t something they have to stick with, but it sure is an indicator of the direction NorthWestern is going.”

NorthWestern Energy updates its Resource Procurement plan every two years as required under state law. Following new legislation this past session, it will review it every three years in the future.

The PSC held two public hearings on the Northwestern Energy Resource Procurement Plan in Helena Monday.

It will hold a listening session in Missoula next week and in Billings and Lewistown in January. The comment period ends January 3.

In the interest of full disclosure, Yellowstone Public Radio receives corporate support from NorthWestern Energy.