Colstrip At A Crossroads

Jun 1, 2018

Ralph Alexander, President and CEO of Talen Energy, was one of the keynote speakers at the Montana Energy Summit 2018 organized by U.S. Senator Steve Daines. Talen is one of the owners of the coal fired power plants in Colstrip.
Credit Jackie Yamanaka

The future of Colstrip was one of the topics at the Montana Energy Summit convened yesterday by U.S. Senator Steve Daines.

Ralph Alexander, the President and CEO of Talen Energy, said Colstrip as the 5th largest generator of power in the country is an important asset in their fleet in terms of megawatts. Most that power from Colstrip is exported to the Pacific Northwest.

That will soon change as customers in Washington, Oregon, and California no longer want electricity from coal. Alexander wondered what’s next for those states.

“Basically all 3 states, who happen to be customers out of Colstrip generally, do not have plans to exit coal period,” Alexander said.

He said there may be times when the lights go out in states like California or Texas because of their dependence on renewable energy.

He said that shift is impacting decisions on what to do with the coal fired plants in Colstrip.

“Of the 6 people who own Colstrip, 4 of them are in states that want to get out of coal. It doesn’t mean they do, but they are under duress - under pressure from their regulators, their government. State government they are beholden to,” he said. “It makes management of Colstrip very tricky.”

Alexander said the federal government has taken some steps to try to shore up the coal and nuclear industries. He added some states are taking action to subsidize nuclear, in particular.

“So Montana, in my view, if you, we don’t do something. Well, I can’t say it any more frankly, Montana is on a path to extinction in terms of coal,” he said.

But Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center said price is the reason customers are turning away from coal fired generation. She said it’s just more expensive than wind and hydro-generated power.

“That’s really just basic market economics,” she said. “You can’t force people to pay more for something that doesn’t give them any more. They want wind and solar for a variety of reasons but one of those reasons is simply they’re cheaper.”

Coal generation in Montana is at a crossroads as the owners of Colstrip Units 1 and 2 are preparing to decommission those plants by 2022.