Mike Garrity

The City of Bozeman (and Missoula) is close to an agreement with Northwestern Energy that will allow people to voluntarily pay more for "green" solar and wind energy. Missoula is considering signing a similar agreement. But the question that's going unanswered is why NorthWestern's customers should pay more for solar and wind generated electricity when they are far cheaper to generate than its antiquated coal-fired plants at Colstrip? 

The major increases in the amount of NorthWestern's solar and wind generated electricity have not come from the corporation's investments in building solar and wind facilities, but rather from facilities built by others that qualify for contracts and avoided cost rates under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 or PURPA, which was implemented to mandate that, among other things, energy corporations buy electricity from renewable and sustainable sources at rates that match the "avoided costs" of the utilities building new non-renewable generation facilities. 

As the technology for wind and solar energy has improved and prices have dropped for solar panels, the cost for renewable sources of electricity that have come online in the last decade are far cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient than NWE's carbon-based electricity generation such as Colstrip or its methane plants.

The Northern Cheyenne are working on a solar project with the Department of Energy. Bozeman's residents who support green energy would be much better off if NorthWestern simply bought more electricity from projects such as the Northern Cheyenne solar array or the Gallatin Power's solar battery project near Trident.

NWE has an agreement with Gallatin that it could advance. NorthWestern could accept those projects under the standard terms of avoided cost, with 25 year contracts. All NWE ratepayers would all be better off if Bozeman and Missoula supported the Northern Cheyenne solar project, the Gallatin solar project, and convinced NorthWestern to stop fighting PURPA projects.

Bozeman and Missoula could also encourage solar farms of 3 MW or less to be built nearby. Small solar farms could get a contract at a price set by the Public Service Commission, which to date has been below the current cost Northwestern pays to generate electricity at Colstrip 3 and 4. If Bozeman was successful, there would be more renewable energy in NorthWestern's portfolio and ratepayers would pay less not more for green electricity.

Finally, there's the fact that Montana's Public Service Commission recently granted NorthWestern a massive 28% electricity rate increase, mainly because of the high cost of maintaining its antiquated, massively polluting, and very expensive coal-fired generators at Colstrip. Electrical rates will go up even more once Northwestern’s new methane-fired electrical generating facility in Laurel comes online. 

The bottom line is the Cities of Bozeman and Missoula will make climate change worse if they sign the proposed agreement to make its residents pay more for green electricity when, in fact, it's an energy source that costs less to produce, is far cleaner, sustainable and will help keep snow on the Bridgers in the winter and water in the Gallatin in the summer. 

Mike Garrity is the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies

More From Missoula Current