Missoulians to PSC: NorthWestern’s power plan leads state on a path to ruin

More than 100 people packed a room in downtown Missoula on Tuesday night during a Montana Public Service Commission listening session to condemn NorthWestern Energy’s plans to stay with carbon-based fuels to power the state well into the future. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Dozens of people lined up in Missoula on Tuesday night and accused the state’s monopoly utility of contributing to planetary decline by holding fast to a carbon-based electricity portfolio, which most described as antiquated and out of touch with reality.

The Montana Public Service Commission opened the listening session, which drew more than 100 people to downtown Missoula, as NorthWestern Energy prepares to adopt a plan to procure electricity over the coming decades.

The company also has announced its intention to purchase a portion of the coal-fired generating plant in Colstrip for $1, despite deep questions over the plant’s future, its costs to society, and an estimated $20 million in needed repairs.

“I don’t know much about horses, but if someone offered me a really big horse for $1, I’d be skeptical,” ratepayer Gary Hawk told PSC Commissioner Bob Lake, who represents the Missoula region.

“NorthWestern Energy has bought a horse for a buck and wants the public to pay for whatever they find inside – a boiler in need of major repair, the cost of shutdowns due to air quality violations, and long-term cleanup costs.”

Tuesday night’s hearing wasn’t the first time NorthWestern’s proposed energy plan has fallen under public scrutiny. Last month before the PSC in Helena, dozens of Montanans said they couldn’t support a plan that depends upon fossil fuels for the next 20 years.

A NorthWestern representative declined to comment on the plan when asked at the Missoula hearing.

“No, we’re not here to comment,” Steve Clawson told the Missoula Current. “We’re here to listen.”

The utility contends that it must add more energy to its system, suggesting the region is short on capacity during peak loads. While no one disputed the company’s need to procure more energy, those who spoke criticized the utility’s proposed approach for doing so.

“The utility’s plan would bring a continuing increase in carbon emissions,” said ratepayer Gerry Matson. “Increasing C02 emissions by any amount is irresponsible. Without a stated goal of reducing C02 emissions, the plan leads us down the road of planetary ruin. NorthWestern must take its plan back to the drawing board and give us something we can live with.”

Addressing the Montana Public Service Commission in Missoula on Tuesday night, Isaiah Hudson said, “NorthWestern Energy needs to get out of coal and get serious about using renewable energy. I think their plan goes in the exact opposite direction.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Energy experts outside the utility have accused NorthWestern of crafting a plan that seeks profit over responsibility. And while the PSC can’t reject the plan, it can reject future requests from the utility.

Opponents are asking the PSC to require NorthWestern to provide “a far more accurate account” of the plan’s associated costs, including those related to Colstrip. They’re also asking the PSC to encourage NorthWestern to provide an “economic model that includes more renewables” as part of its energy future.

The cost of renewable energy has decreased over the past 10 years and is expected to continue falling. The cost of carbon-based fuels, however, will likely rise.

“In this rapidly changing world, there are risks to pursuing a business-as-usual approach,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

“On the other hand, the transition to renewable energy has great potential benefits, not only for Missoula, but for the entire state of Montana and NorthWestern Energy as well. We have the opportunity to put Montana on the map as a leader in energy innovation.”

Strohmaier reminded the PSC of the recent goals adopted by the city of Missoula and Missoula County. Together, they seek to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2035.

In contrast, NorthWestern has unveiled a plan to reduce its carbon intensity by 90% by 2045.

“We look forward to seeing the assumptions behind that goal in order to help NorthWestern find ways to accelerate that timeline, which most of us feel isn’t aggressive enough,” Strohmaier said. “We remain concerned about long-term impacts on ratepayers if NorthWestern further invests in Colstrip, and how this would further impede our ability to achieve our own carbon reduction goals.”

A boy named Isaiah Hudson summarized the sentiments of opponents in his own comment to the PSC.

“I think the science is here and it’s saying that climate change is real,” he said. “I think NorthWestern Energy needs to get out of coal and get serious about using renewable energy. I think their plan goes in the exact opposite direction.”