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Montana leaders, environmentalists react to Colstrip acquisition

 Colstrip power plant in October 2020.
Kayla Desroches
Yellowstone Public Radio
Colstrip power plant in October 2020.

At a legislative reception at a hotel in Helena, leaders with NorthWestern Energy and Spokane-based Avista Utilities announced the big news: that Montana's largest utility will acquire Avista's stake in the Colstrip coal-fired power plant.

The move would double NorthWestern’s share in the plant’s last two remaining units even as the plant’s majority co-owners eye their exit.

Gov. Greg Gianforte was among the speakers at the announcement, which the Montana State News Bureau recorded.

“This is a good deal for Montana and it’s a good deal for Colstrip,” he told the crowd.

In the days following the announcement, other Republican leaders including U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Congressman Matt Rosendale positioned themselves behind the power plant as a representation of coal, an industry that’s seen a trend of closures across the region.

NorthWestern representatives have said for years that the state needs more long term, immediately dispatchable power like the kind Colstrip produces, especially as more coal plants retire.

“We’re owners in Colstrip already,” NorthWestern CEO Brian Bird told YPR. “And it’s been a very reliable resource for us, particularly on the coldest days, the hottest days of the year. It’s 24/7 on-demand power.”

In 2020, two of the plant’s four units shuttered after more than 40 years in operation, leaving behind two units built in the mid 1980s. NorthWestern Energy’s acquisition would give it an added 30% ownership in the plant’s remaining units and an added share in its electricity generation after the acquisition goes into effect in 2026.

The plant is historically the economic center of the city of Colstrip.

Mayor John Williams called the acquisition “very exciting all across the board.”

Co-owners Puget Sound Energy, Avista, Portland General Electric and Pacificorp are based in the Pacific Northwest and, under their states’ clean energy laws, have to transition away from coal in the coming years.

Williams says NorthWestern’s decision to acquire Avista Utilities’ ownership share is a relief.

“This provides us some anticipation of looking forward into the future knowing that these plants are going to continue to operate,” he said.

Representatives with NorthWestern have said the utility will stay at the plant for the remainder of its operational life. The contract with Avista says Northwestern would need coal supply to last until 2030. City leaders say they’re hopeful improvements and technological advances at the plant could keep it in business far into the future.

Environmental groups meanwhile say further putting Montanans in a position to support the power plant’s infrastructure is a poor investment.

“The plant is old,” said Anne Hedges, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

She and other environmentalists are encouraging Montana to switch away from reliance on fossil fuels like coal and join a rising number of states “going green,” as more utilities turn to clean energy generation.

“To me, it makes no sense for our utility to spend all the money they’re gonna have to spend to maintain and operate that plant when they could be saving us money by doing what other utilities are and investing in a more modern energy system.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2019 coal saw a more-than 40 year low because of plant retirements. That was also the first year that annual U.S. energy consumption of renewables outpaced coal.

EPA data show the Colstrip coal-fired power plant accounted for 60% of facility emissions statewide in 2021.

“We need to consider the climate crisis and the cost that that imposes on us,” Hedges said.

NorthWestern’s vice president of Supply John Hines tells YPR the plant’s remaining co-owners are on board with the transaction – and some are putting together a plan for how to operate the plant past 2025, Washington State’s deadline for utilities there to leave coal behind.

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