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GOP lawmakers want to boost coal, Colstrip – not renewable power

Pro-coal bills advancing in 2021 Legislature
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Posted at 1:18 PM, Mar 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-27 15:18:02-04

HELENA  — While coal-fired power production is on the decline nationally, Republican lawmakers in Montana are looking to buck that trend, advancing an agenda this session to prolong the two remaining Colstrip power plants in southeastern Montana and de-emphasize wind and solar power.

“With all this stuff that’s going on out in Washington and Oregon, I just am worried that it’s eventually going to shut down (Colstrip) and destroy that asset,” says Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, the sponsor of several energy bills.

More than a half-dozen bills to accomplish this agenda have been introduced; most of them have passed at least one house of the Legislature.

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State Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls.

And right in the thick of this debate is the state’s largest electric utility, NorthWestern Energy, which wants to acquire a larger share of the Colstrip plants and is supporting bills that encourage that goal – and undercut renewable power.

“I think there’s a recognition by legislators that there is a value to Colstrip into the future,” NorthWestern Energy lobbyist David Hoffman told MTN News.

NorthWestern owns 30 percent of Colstrip 4, one of two coal-fired plants still cranking out power in Colstrip, about 120 miles east of Billings. The remaining share of Colstrip 3 and 4 are owned by utilities in Washington and Oregon and the plants’ operator, Talen Energy.

The Washington and Oregon utilities want to abandon their shares of the plant within the next decade, or sooner, under pressure from state regulators, politicians and consumers to ditch coal-fired power and move to cleaner energy.

Hoffman says NorthWestern also wants to move more to cleaner energy, eventually, but believes Colstrip can operate for many more years, providing what it calls “safe, reliable power” – which he says the company needs to help supply its 380,000 Montana customers.

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David Hoffman, NorthWestern Energy.

But opponents of these bills say the push to prolong Colstrip is driven by two things: Political support for coal and NorthWestern’s greed.

Former state Public Service Commissioner Tom Schneider, a Democrat, says NorthWestern’s share of Colstrip is very profitable for the company, because it got in the rate base at a high price in 2008 – and that the company wants to perpetuate and expand that sweet deal.

“They have a very vested interest in keeping that plant open, because they’ve got this windfall existing rate treatment of that plant,” he said. “They do not want it to go down, any time, any way, because they’ve got a cash cow.”

Schneider joined several other people last week at a news conference criticizing Senate Bill 379, which spells out how NorthWestern can charge ratepayers for any additional share of Colstrip it acquires.

They said the bill, sponsored by Fitzpatrick, requires state regulators to approve highly profitable electric rates for NorthWestern, based on any Colstrip power-plant acquisition.

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Former state Public Service Commissioner Tom Schneider.

A better choice for ratepayers, the economy and the environment is more wind or solar power, which cheaper and cleaner, the SB379 opponents said.

SB379 has its first hearing Tuesday before the Senate Energy Committee, at the Capitol.

Two other Fitzpatrick-sponsored bills on Colstrip are aimed at the out-of-sta owners, seeking to strengthen NorthWestern Energy’s position against any move by the other owners to hasten the plants’ closure.

Republicans also are advancing several bills that could weaken renewable-power development, such ones to repeal or undercut requirements for utilities to develop minimum amounts of green energy.

Fitzpatrick told MTN News he has nothing against renewable power, but that it should have to compete on its own against other types of power, without subsidies or mandates.

He also said that wind and solar power remain an “intermittent” source of electricity, and Montana needs the reliability of coal-fired power.

“In the middle of the winter, when I need power, I can turn my lights on and I know it’s going to be there,” Fitzpatrick said.

NorthWestern Energy makes similar arguments – and also notes that it already has plenty of renewable power among its sources of electricity,

Hoffman said if one includes hydropower as a renewable resource, 68 percent of the company’s electricity is from a renewable source, including 500 megawatts of wind capacity. He said the company’s entire average load is about 750 megawatts, with a winter peak of 1,300 megawatts.

The company would like to get to 90 percent of renewable power by 2045, he said, but, in the meantime, sees a long-term need for reliable coal-fired power from Colstrip.

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David Schlissel, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis

Opponents of these bills say boosters of coal and coal-fired power are ignoring two fundamental changes in the energy world: Wind and solar power is now generally cheaper – sometimes, much cheaper -- than coal-fired power, and, with things like battery storage of power, the weaknesses of “intermittent” power are being overcome.

“That argument (about coal being more reliable) wasn’t true 15 years ago and certainly isn’t true today,” said David Schlimmer of the Institute on Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “The transition is happening; it’s no longer the future. It’s the present. …

“If Colstrip continues to operate, it will be an island of coal in a sea of renewables, from Colorado to the Pacific Ocean.”

Schneider also said if lawmakers insist on saddling NorthWestern electric customers with the cost of more coal-fired power, it will be an expensive, long-term burden. NorthWestern won’t always need that power and will have difficulty selling the excess, in a market dominated by renewables – but NorthWestern consumers, under SB379, would still keep paying for a portion of it, he said.

Under normal regulation, which SB379 upsets, “they’d have to make a tremendous case to overcome all the hurdles to buy more of that plant, Schneider said.

See accompanying story for a list of the Colstrip/renewable power bills, and their status.