HELENA — NorthWestern Energy, the state’s dominant electric utility, on Tuesday, withdrew its request for regulatory approval of its proposed 175-megawatt, natural gas-fired power plant near Laurel.
The surprise announcement, coming just days before opponents of the plant and other parties planned to file testimony on the proposal, indicated the company may go forward on building the plant without advance approval from the state Public Service Commission.
The company said “uncertainties” in the construction market and “challenges to the supply chain” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it to make quicker decisions on the plant, the filing with the PSC said.
“(We) need to make commercial decisions outside the timelines of the approval docket to ensure that we maintain the most favorable supply and labor prices for this project,” the company said.
NorthWestern officials said they would offer more explanation in a news release later Tuesday.
The company submitted the proposal this spring, asking the PSC to grant “pre-approval” for the project and the company’s plans acquire a 50-megawatt battery-storage project near Billings.
It said the projects are needed to help supply NorthWestern’s 388,000 Montana electric customers in future years.
Pre-approval for the projects would allow NorthWestern to place them into rates, charging customers for the cost for years to come.
Company officials had said the net cost of the plans, along with the purchase of more power from a Canadian firm over the next five years, would be close to zero for customers.
But the proposed natural-gas plant has run into a buzzsaw of criticism from many quarters, including environmentalists, some of Montana’s major cities and others, who said it was too costly and too dirty when cheaper, cleaner alternatives should be available.
Other parties in the case, known as “intervenors,” had been preparing to submit testimony to the PSC by Oct. 1.
John Hines, NorthWestern’s vice president for supply, has defended the natural-gas plant as a necessary, reliable long-term power source for customers – and noted that NorthWestern has an energy mix that is nearly two-thirds renewable, or higher than most electric utilities in the nation.
Critics of the plant included three Montana cities -- Missoula, Bozeman and Helena – that thought NorthWestern would be helping their citizens go to 100 percent net renewable electricity by the end of this decade.
“A plan that locks Montana consumers into a rate structure that involves burning of fossil fuels for 30 years is contrary to our goals,” Bozeman Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham told MTN News this summer. “We don’t believe you can get from here to there, using the resource mix that they are proposing.”