Missoula County commissioners on Thursday signed a letter to NorthWestern Energy asking it to consider renewable sources as it drafts a new plan guiding its energy future.

The power utility is currently soliciting public comments on a draft of its plan, and the choices it makes could hurt or hinder Missoula County's efforts to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2030.

“The decisions NorthWestern is going to make on where they plan to procure energy will have a direct effect on our ability to achieve our clean energy goals,” Commissioner Josh Slotnick told the Missoula Current. “It's very important to us that they build into their plan the purchase of renewables.”

With a growing number of local governments across the country adopting clean electricity goals, other power companies have joined the effort as allies.

Investor-owned utilities that have committed to 100 percent carbon-free electricity include Rocky Mountain Power, Idaho Power and Xcel Energy, among others, according to the county.

“This is an opportunity for NorthWestern to truly be a leader,” Slotnick said. “They could be the preeminent creator of energy in our area from renewables. Changing procurement doesn't mean they lose business. It just means they innovate, change, rise to the challenge, be a leader and make money in a new way.”

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, who helped encourage the county's letter, said NorthWestern's draft plan indicates its intent to pursue “lowest cost” resources, including a commitment to coal.

Critics believe the utility's approach is shortsighted and doesn't take into account the changing energy market, public demand and long-term cleanup costs. The later could implicate ratepayers down the road.

“As we see with Colstrip, there are costs that might come home to roost decades from now, just on what it takes to maintain that facility and remediate the adverse impacts of that facility that you're not going to see with the renewables, from wind or solar,” Strohmaier said. “It's short-sighted if the utility is merely looking at cost from a narrow lens.”

Roughly 61 percent of NorthWestern's existing energy portfolio comes from renewable sources, something noted in the county's letter and often stated by company officials.

While it’s a start, Missoula County believes the utility can do more as it eyes future power sources.

“We understand that reaching 100 percent renewable electricity – or even 90 percent – will not be easy,” the country's letter states. “We look forward to working with NorthWestern Energy, and to learning together from other local governments and utilities that are finding innovative ways to achieve this transition.”

Both the city of Missoula and Missoula County have adopted 100 percent clean electricity goals, with a target date of 2030. The county recently backed its words by adopting an emergency resolution prohibiting cryptocurrency operations from locating or expanding in the county unless certain conditions are met.

That includes developing or purchasing renewable power to offset 100 percent of the electricity consumed by the mining operation. The county is drafting a long-term resolution that could ask the same of other large electricity consumers.

The choices NorthWestern Energy makes in its new portfolio could implicate the county's efforts. The city is also expected to join the letter asking the utility to consider its future power.

“From a 2030 standpoint, we're looking to make that goal more achievable, not less achievable,” Strohmaier said. “Anything we can do in collaboration with NorthWestern to achieve our local goals and not make that challenge a heavier lift than it already is would be much appreciated.”

Diana Manetta, the county's energy conservation and sustainability coordinator, said NorthWestern is expected to respond to the comments it receives. County officials may testify before the Montana Public Service Commission when it opens its hearing on the utility's plan this spring.

Public comments are set to close on May 5.

“NorthWestern will file the resource procurement plan with the PSC,” Manetta said. “That plan is intended to be the big picture guiding NorthWestern's procurement over the coming decades.”