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Proposal would call Montana lawmakers to study electricity reserves, past service interruptions

A proposal before the Montana Legislature would call for lawmakers to study electricity reserves and past service interruptions in order to find ways to avoid controlled outages in the case of an emergency.

Republican Rep. Katie Zolnikov of Billings introduced House Joint Resolution 6 at its first hearing before the House Energy, Technology and Federal Relations committee Monday. She said it had been brought to her by Montana’s electric co-ops.

"The idea with this bill is instead of passing policies this session that forces either a utility or a wholesaler or a co-op or a large user to abide by new laws and regulations, we take a very comprehensive look at this," she said.

Unlike investor-owned utilities that fall under state regulation, member-owned rural electric cooperatives control whether they generate or buy their electricity supply and what entities they buy power from. Co-ops also rely on electric utilities to serve as balancing authorities that manage the flow of electricity supply and demand through transmission lines.

Balancing authorities may require co-ops to temporarily reduce or cut off power from customers in order to avoid overwhelming the system — which happened in mid-February 2021 in eastern Montana.

That winter, a regional transmission organization called the Southwest Power Pool called for service interruptions in order to stabilize their system. SPP primarily operates in the central U.S., but also covers parts of central and eastern Montana, where controlled outages affected some co-ops.

Later, in an analysis after the event, SPP reported interruptions occurred in its system for 50 minutes on February 15, 2021 and roughly three hours on February 16, which it attributed to a combination of high demand and limited power production due to bad weather, fuel supply issues, equipment malfunctions and transmission system constraints.

Bill proponent Mark Lambrecht spoke on behalf of the Montana Electric Cooperatives Association at the hearing and expressed co-ops' concerns about providing reliable service during extreme weather like the winter of 2021.

“This resolution is needed to establish an interim study so the Montana Legislature, balancing authorities, industries and electric cooperatives can better understand this situation and develop specific options to prevent disruptions,” he said.

Lambrecht pointed to the loss of immediately dispatchable power traditionally provided by fossil fuels as a contributing factor.

Robin Arnold with advocacy group Renewable Northwest also testified in support, saying that although the organization does not think declining baseload power is the problem, it supports an interim study.

“We believe a lot of the resource adequacy issues are being caused by aging transmission infrastructure," he said. "A lot of transmission in this region is 25 to 50 years old, and there’s very little available transmission capacity left in the region."

The bill proponents included Montana-Dakota Utilities Company and NorthWestern Energy, two of Montana’s regional transmission system organizations.

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