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Missoula groups, government pushing NW Energy to stem reliance on fossil fuels

A Nissan LEAF powers up at one of the new electric charging stations installed by NorthWestern Energy in Missoula’s downtown Park Place garage in 2017. The city and county of Missoula want to ensure that electricity comes from renewable sources. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Looking to address the climate crisis and reduce carbon emissions, the city and county of Missoula adopted a joint agreement in February to work with NorthWestern Energy to develop a green tariff.

Joined by the cities of Bozeman and Helena, all four governments hired a national consultant, who will collaborate with NorthWestern in developing the tariff.

And while controversy surrounds the utility’s push for a new $250 million natural gas plant in Laurel, efforts to create the tariff have NorthWestern’s early support.

“As communities are setting these goals and working for this, we want to work with them. We want to offer solutions to help them achieve those goals,” said company spokesperson Jo Dee Black. “When a green product is shaped more, NorthWestern would have to make an application to the PCS to create that tariff for customers who want that product.”

If created and approved, the tariff would be the first of its kind in Montana, and it would help the city and county of Missoula move closer to their goals of achieving 100% clean electricity by 2035.

But last week, facing a threat from a new front, Missoula filed a motion to intervene in a process before the Montana Public Service Commission that would give NorthWestern Energy the approval needed to build a new natural gas plant in Laurel.

Opponents of the plant say the $250 million investment would commit Montana’s utility customers to a future based on carbon. Other groups are watching the process as well, including the Montana Consumer Council, which has already signed a non-disclosure agreement, giving it the ability to review documents containing propitiatory information included with the process.

“Any proposal to develop new fossil fuel resources deserves serious scrutiny at this particular moment in history when the science is clear that we must phase fossil fuels out entirely in order to avoid catastrophic changes to our climate,” said Diana Maneta, Missoula County’s energy conservation coordinator.

Black said the company has estimated its energy deficit in Montana at around 555 megawatts. During peak demand, the utility relies on the market for up to 50% of the energy needed to fill that demand.

Black said those markets are often volatile and impact Montana consumers.

“NorthWestern’s capacity deficit is larger than any of our regional carriers, but there’s a capacity deficit in the whole Pacific Northwest,” she said. “All those energy providers, as they retire some of the coal generation, they’re looking to the market more often too.”

Missoula Electric Coop and Kettlehouse Brewery joined forces for a large solar installation in Bonner. (Missoula Current file photo)

NorthWestern has been accused by some as being behind on the global pursuit of a new energy future, one that will phase out fossil fuels and replace them with new and cleaner technology.

But Black said the utility’s vision statement for its Montana portfolio looks to the future and seeks to reduce the carbon intensity of its portfolio by 90% by 2045. She described “intensity” as a push to reduce the amount of carbon by weight emitted per unit of energy consumed.

Black also said that nearly 70% of the utility’s Montana portfolio is already carbon free. Nationwide, she said, it stands at around 40%.

“NorthWestern hasn’t added any new thermal resources since 2011,” Black said. “We’ve added a lot of resources. They’ve been hydro and mostly wind, but we have some solar in our system too.”

On Tuesday morning, according to the utility’s real-time resource chart, hydro was providing 324 megawatts of electricity in Montana while thermal sources were providing 199 megawatts. Wind was providing 132 megawatts and solar 8 megawatts.

Black said such diversity of resources is needed to meet demand at certain times of day – and under certain conditions. When the utility faces a shortage on hot summer days or cold winter nights, it must turn to the market to meet demand.

The utility is looking to avoid that with its new natural gas plant and storage facility.

“We can call on that when demand is higher or market prices are really high,” Black said. “We need to fill in that capacity deficit.”

But PSC consultant Synapse Energy Economics analyzed NorthWestern’s computer modeling and assumptions and concluded that it was set up to create an over-reliance on fossil fuel generation.

Other groups agree, including Missoula-based 350 Montana, which filed two complaints in Missoula County District Court challenging the utility’s pursuit of the new thermal plant in Laurel.

“This new gas plant that NorthWestern proposes will substantially raise rates,” said Monica Tranel, one of 350 Montana’s attorneys. “And, as the 350 Montana study points out, it’s going in the wrong direction.”