Nick Fitzmaurice

This weekend, the Northwest faced extremely cold temperatures, a reminder that winter is well underway. With seasonal extremes come peaks in energy demand as heaters work harder to keep our homes and businesses safe and warm. NorthWestern Energy, Montana’s primary electricity supplier, attempted to address this peak demand with a news release and pandering media coverage. However, there is more to the story.

NorthWestern Energy is sticking with its exaggerated claims that Montana needs expensive coal and methane gas thermal resources for extreme conditions like these, but this is far from the truth. In fact, coal and methane generation sources are the true Achilles' heel of reliability in extreme cold.

As the cold front descended on Montana, one of Colstrip’s two units went down on Sunday, Jan. 7, not coming fully back online until early Saturday, Jan. 13, when the higher demand for energy was already upon us. Based on NorthWestern’s forecasts, it knew well in advance that more power would be needed starting Wednesday night.

Methane gas has proven no more reliable. On Jan. 9, the Union of Concerned Scientists published “Gas Malfunction: Calling into Question the Reliability of Gas Power Plants,” a report which highlighted reliability challenges for methane gas in extreme conditions.

Methane gas’ unreliability was the main cause of the 2021 rolling blackouts in Texas as Winter Storm Uri knocked out most gas generation backups on the system, and last year’s Winter Storm Elliott brought rolling blackouts to the East Coast, where gas plants made up the majority of power plant outages.

The concerns of the report were once more confirmed this past weekend when Washington State faced a methane gas shortage as a major storage facility was forced to shut down during the winter storm.

NorthWestern has been sounding the alarm on a capacity shortage in the state, using this claim to justify construction of the expensive Yellowstone County Generating Station methane plant and its impending acquisition of more of the Colstrip plant which will drive rates up even further.

However, the availability of “24-7 on-demand generation” from coal and methane plants is a well-documented myth. Perpetuating that myth puts money into NorthWestern shareholders’ pockets as ratepayers foot the bill for the utility’s risky investments and pay ever-increasing rates (such as the 28% increase NorthWestern was just granted).

We stumbled through this winter storm, and luckily our lights and heat stayed on. But customers need more than luck. Customers need a robust, reliable, and affordable energy system.

If we want to ensure reliable electricity in Montana, particularly in the most extreme conditions, we must look to renewables and bolster Montana's transmission network as part of a more advanced grid management system that allows utilities to optimally and cost-effectively share power across the West. Winds soared as the cold front rolled in on Wednesday, exceeding coal and gas generation that day to meet nearly half of NorthWestern’s electricity demand with excess generation to export.

Paired with short- and long-term storage, excess generation could be captured and dispatched once winds die down. We have barely tapped Montana’s abundant and cost-effective wind resource, which can be harnessed to meet energy demands while maintaining our status as an energy exporter. Demand-side management can also be deployed to shift non-essential energy consumption away from peak periods, further reducing the strain put on the grid by these extreme weather events.

Renewable wind and solar energy are variable by nature, but this does not mean they are not reliable. We must rethink how we manage our electricity grid to capture these low-cost, abundant resources, utilizing them when they are needed.

NorthWestern is behind the times, and its focus on expensive, unreliable gas and coal resources is woefully inadequate and misguided. We need our utility to pull its head out of the sand and start thinking seriously about the future of energy in Montana.

Nick Fitzmaurice is the Energy Transition Advocate at the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC).