Missoula County, city urge Montana PSC to lead transition to renewable energy

Missoula Electric CoOp and Kettlehouse Brewery joined forces for a large solar installation in Bonner last year. Missoula County and the city are urging the Montana Public Service commission to move NorthWestern Energy from its “business and usual” approach to energy and adopt a clean energy plan guiding the next 20 years. (Missoula Current file photo)

Missoula County commissioners on Wednesday signed a letter to the Montana Public Service Commission asking it to position the state as a leader in clean energy as it considers a plan guiding the future of the state’s monopoly power company.

The PSC is currently accepting public comments on NorthWestern Energy’s 2019 Electricity Supply Resource Procurement Plan, which outlines how the utility will meet power demands over the next two decades.

Critics of the plan believe it fails to consider the changing energy market. Commissioners said the utility can do more to prepare for the future, and they’re urging the PSC to help NorthWestern shift away from its “business as usual” model.

“In this rapidly changing world, there are great risks to pursuing a ‘business as usual’ approach,” the county’s letter states. “On the other hand, the transition to renewable energy has great potential benefits, not only for Missoula, but for NorthWestern Energy as well.”

The letter encourages the PSC to position the state as a leader in “clean energy innovation” as it considers the utility’s energy plans guiding the next 20 years.

Commissioners voiced support for the letter and its position.

“Well said,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick, reading from the letter. “This is just so strong.”

Missoula County and the city together adopted a goal in April to move the metro area to 100% clean electricity by 2030. That’s the year NorthWestern’s proposed energy plan expires, and without a nod to the clean energy future, it could be hard for Missoula to meet its own electricity goals.

Roughly 95 percent of the electricity consumed by the Missoula urban area is purchased from NorthWestern Energy. As it stands, there are few other options.

“The city and county are acutely interested in NorthWestern Energy’s (procurement plan) because NorthWestern’s plans have great potential to help, or hinder, our efforts to achieve 100% clean electricity and our ultimate goal of addressing climate change,” the letter notes.

In May, the city and county penned a similar letter to NorthWestern as it was accepting public comment on its procurement plan. Commissioner Dave Strohmaier at the time suggested the utility was taking a shortsighted approach by looking at its future through the “narrow lens” of cost.

“The city and county did submit joint comments on the draft of the procurement plan back in May, said Diana Manetta, the county’s energy conservation and sustainability coordinator. “Those comments were directed to NorthWestern when they were taking comments, and now it’s the PSC.”

As they did in their May letter, the county highlights the region’s shift toward a carbon-free future. More than 140 local governments have committed to a 100% clean energy future. A number of regional utilities also have pledged to pursue 100% carbon-free electricity, including Idaho Power, Xcel Energy and Rocky Mountain Power, among others.

The New Mexico Public Service Commissioner has also made the commitment. Local leaders in Missoula are now urging the Montana PSC to consider that future, where other states are turning their back on coal.

“Sixty-one percent of NorthWestern Energy’s current generation portfolio is carbon free, and we greatly value these existing hydroelectric, wind and solar resources,” the county wrote. “But we believe we can, and must, go further.”