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Colstrip residents excited about bigger NorthWestern Energy role in power plant

Posted at 9:47 AM, Jan 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-18 11:47:37-05

COLSTRIP - NorthWestern Energy announced it is increasing its stake in Colstrip's coal-fired power plant Monday, which company and local elected officials say will have a massive impact on both the residents in the community and others around the state.

As the town's name suggests, Colstrip is a community built on coal. It's a lifeline that has kept the town going since the plant was built in the 1970s, but as demand for coal power has dwindled, so has Colstrip's population.

It's a problem coal mine maintenance superintendent Walt Shaw knows all too well.

“We’ve had trouble getting people to even come and work here because they couldn’t depend on a future here in Colstrip,” Shaw said Tuesday at Rizo's Cafe in Colstrip.

And that's why Monday's announcement from NorthWestern Energy of its plans to keep Units 3 and 4 open through the rest of this decade has people who live here breathing a collective sigh of relief.

“This is going to be a game changer to be able to get people to move to Colstrip and work at the power plant or work at the coal mine,” Shaw said.

And it isn't just employees who are celebrating. Many businesses, and even the Colstrip school district, survive on the tax dollars that the plant generates.

“As a school district, we don’t want to lose our kids, and we want to get as many people as we can into this town because it’s a great community to live in,” said Susan Sharkey, an administrator for the Colstrip School District.

Sharkey was among the many in the town who were fearful of what would happen in two years when the commitment of Spokane, Wash.-based Avista Energy, which agreed to transfer its share of the plant to NorthWestern for zero dollars, to the plant was set to expire.

“We thought it all was going to end in 2025," Sharkey said. "We didn’t know where we were going or what would happen. People would be leaving, and not be able to sell their homes."

Avista is one of five co-owners of the plant, selling its power to customers in Washington state. A new state law scheduled to go into effect bars the utility from selling fossil fuels, which is why Avista was looking to sell its undisclosed share of Units 3 and 4.

Sharkey hopes NorthWestern's increased share in the Colstrip plant will mean new life for this Montana town, which is always dependent on the energy source that fuels its growth.

“These power plants are what, I mean you go around town, and it’s like, ‘we do our business because coal does business for us,'” Sharkey said.

And Shaw is hopeful that the security will make the town a more desirable location for future employees.

“Future employees that I need to hire are going to feel secure here," Shaw said. "They’re going to want to come to work here."