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Despite letter's claims, Montana utilities aren't warning of impending 'rolling blackouts'

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A letter sent to lawmakers, media outlets and others last week from Montana Public Service Commissioners Tony O’Donnell and Randy Pinocci cites a “probable lack of energy leading to ‘rolling blackouts’ in eastern Montana this summer" as one reason for state leaders to back the Colstrip coal-fired power plant.

Both Northwestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities are named in the letter, but neither has indicated a high probability of rolling blackouts in the weeks to come.

The letter cites the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, a member-based generation and grid manager that covers 15 states — mostly in the central U.S., but also including Montana-Dakota Utilities in eastern Montana.

MDU spokesperson Mark Hanson said the utility has sufficient generation resources to meet its peak demand requirements, and blackouts are unlikely —in other words, not “probable.”

NorthWestern did not specifically address the letter or its claims in response to YPR’s request for comment. Spokesperson Jo Dee Black reiterated NorthWestern’s ongoing work to decrease its reliance on energy markets and said that the Colstrip power plant continues to serve a vital part of meeting customers’ peak demands.

The facility is embroiled in a legal dispute that involves Colstrip’s co-owners, most of which are required to stop charging their customers for coal-fired generation within the next few years. NorthWestern has said it will remain at the plant as long as it’s able.

This spring, a North American Electricity Reliability Corporation report projected the possible stressors on western electric grids this summer. NERC referred to MISO’s “capacity shortfall in its North and Central areas, resulting in high risk of energy emergencies during peak summer conditions.”

According to MDU, Montana has excess generation to support the needs of its service area and that states with a deficit include Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Missouri.

NERC in May projected 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 the western states.

Director of transmission market strategy Andrew McLain told YPR at the time that "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.”

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