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NorthWestern's Energy Sourcing Plan Finds Support In Billings, Colstrip

A piece of coal
Alexander G
Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Hearing sessions across Montana over the last month have given ratepayers of the state’s largest electric utility the chance to sound off on the company’s 20-year-plan for sourcing energy. While many people have lashed out against the fossil fuel heavy plan, a minority of supporters in Billings and Colstrip last week stepped up.

More than 100 people filled a room in the Billings Public Library for a listening session Jan. 2 about NorthWestern Energy’s Electricity Supply Resource Procurement Plan. Roughly 18 people spoke against. Around half that number spoke in support.

Forester Jeff Hermans said people need the cheap, dependable energy that he thinks coal-fired power can provide.

“Y’know, I really believe that this whole war that they’re raging is really a war on the poor. People that can’t afford to pay their electric bills are gonna be hit the worst,” Hermans said. 

The body that regulates energy in Montana, the Public Service Commission, organized the listening sessions. While the PSC doesn’t have the power to reject or accept NorthWestern Energy’s procurement plan, it does have agency over future projects when the utility wants to put that plan into effect.

The 300-page document projects using natural gas as the most efficient and cheapest way to meet peak customer demand. The company says it needs to double its power generation by 2025 to avoid blackouts and purchasing expensive electricity on the open market.

The majority of people who spoke at recent state-organized listening sessions in Bozeman, Helena, Missoula and Lewistown were against NorthWestern Energy’s procurement plan. Many said it fails to take climate change into consideration and leans too heavily on fossil fuels.

But in Billings and Colstrip last week, more than two dozen people commented in favor of the plan, arguing it addresses NorthWestern’s stated need to increase its baseload capacity in a cheap, reliable way.

On Saturday, PSC Commissioner Tony O’Donnell of Billings held an unofficial listening session in Colstrip with the help of a community member with coal advocacy group Colstrip United. He said this was a chance to hear all perspectives.

The gathering in the Colstrip High School auditorium drew around 80 people, many wearing Colstrip United T-shirts. Units 1 and 2 both stopped generating power last week, which set the mood at the meeting, where 19 people spoke.

Rancher Hugh Broadus aired his anger and sadness in light of the closures.

“I watch what’s happening here. It’s not right. We need this thing here. What a nice little community we’ve built out here in the middle of nowhere. Good jobs. Good people. Everybody forgot about that. Got a little bit of particle in the air that’s bothering you. Well, so what?” Broadus said. 

Colstrip Units 3 and 4 shutdown temporarily in 2018 for air pollution violations, forcing NorthWestern to buy energy on the open market.

While Washington-based owners in Colstrip are pulling out financially, NorthWestern wants to further invest in the plant. In December, a day after the listening session in Helena, NorthWestern Energy announced it plans to buy an added 25 percent stake in the Colstrip power plant Unit 4.

Colstrip residents are supportive.

Jack Standa, who works at the Rosebud Mine, said it’s frustrating to feel like Colstrip’s future is being dictated from outside of Montana.

“I see so many utilities in this country kinda spreading the politically-correct words about this transition, but the truth is, if you want affordable, reliable power, it’s gotta come from base-load generation. So thank you to NorthWestern for being honest and saying that,” Standa said. 

Standa said the best way for NorthWestern to add baseload power to its portfolio is to increase its ownership in Unit 4.

Rancher Kourtney Kluver talked about how important the power plant has been to keeping his operation going, especially during a hard, snowy winter two years ago.

“And I am here to say, if I couldn’t have plugged those tractors in, I wouldn’t be in business today because the only way I got those diesel engines to fire up was because I could plug that stuff in. And it went out there and it started everything and I coulda kissed this power plant over here because otherwise I’ve got 200, 300 cows that are just gonna die,” Kluver said. 

Raymond Loveridge came to the event to speak despite working the graveyard shift at the Rosebud Mine the night before.

“We all know that times are changing but the people that live here are very attached to the environment. And we’re aware of changes, but I think we can hopefully transition away rather than be shoved out,” Loveridge said. 

NorthWestern Energy, which had representatives in Billings Thursday and Colstrip Saturday, reviews its 20-year-plan every three years.

The deadline to submit public comment on the NorthWestern Procurement Plan passed as of Monday. The PSC will review those comments within the next few months.

NorthWestern Energy will need the PSC’s approval before it purchases an added share of Colstrip's Unit 4. The company says it plans to submit its application to do so on or around the end of the month.

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