HELENA — Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on NorthWestern Energy’s request for pre-approval of 225 megawatts of new electricity resources – including construction of a 175-megawatt natural gas-fired plant in Laurel.
Missoula, Bozeman and Helena had an understanding that Montana’s largest electricity would help their citizens go to 100% net renewable electricity by the end of this decade.
But NorthWestern Energy’s proposal to build a new 175-megawatt power plant that burns natural gas has undercut that goal, the cities say – and left them wondering how serious NorthWestern may be in assisting their green-power goals.
“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. “We don’t believe you can get from here to there, using the resource mix that they are proposing.”
Now the cities are turning to the Montana Public Service Commission, where they’ll likely argue against approval of the plant.
“Sitting here in the middle of a heatwave – these are the kind of extreme conditions that scientists are telling us we’re going to be experiencing more frequently and more intensely in the coming decades unless we get on this and do something about it,” says Diana Maneta, sustainability program director for Missoula County, on a day the temperature hit 99° in the Garden City.
“I think that’s the perspective that the city and county are bringing to this (case). We need to really seriously scrutinize this proposal.”
Both the city and county of Missoula have become official parties in the case before the PSC, which will decide whether to approve NorthWestern’s request to approve construction of the plant in Laurel.
They’ll be able to request documents from NorthWestern, examine the proposals the utility rejected in its quest to acquire more power to meet growing demand, and submit testimony.
Yet while the cities are disappointed with NorthWestern’s proposal, they’re continuing to work with the company on another green-energy path: Creating an all-renewable product that citizens of the three towns can buy at a special rate.
Cunningham says that a separate proposal could be submitted to the PSC later this year, with the cooperation of NorthWestern.
If NorthWestern won’t agree on a green-power product and rate structure, the cities may consider going it alone, and asking the PSC to require it, he adds.
NorthWestern officials say they’re glad to work with the cities on the latter proposal.
But John Hines, NorthWestern’s vice president for supply, says an all-renewable-energy product will be more expensive, and that the company won’t agree to anything it believes would force customers that don’t choose the green product to subsidize it.
“If they want that type of all carbon-free product, we would like to get it for them,” he told MTN News. “But … we are going to ensure that our core customers, from a reliability perspective and their pocketbooks, are protected.”
NorthWestern serves about 388,000 electric customers in Montana. The company says the urban areas of Bozeman, Helena and Missoula have about 120,000 electric meters or 31% of its total customer base.
Hines also notes that about two-thirds of the power NorthWestern supplies Montana customers already comes from renewable sources, like wind, solar, and hydropower – which, he says, is above the national average for electric utilities.
“It just the pace, that I would say, that we are concerned about going to 100 percent renewable power,” he says. “But if that’s what they want, we are going to try to provide that for them.”
Last year, the city and county of Missoula crafted a “memo of understanding” with NorthWestern, in which the company agreed to help them reach their goal of 100 percent renewable power for the Missoula urban area by 2030.
Maneta says the city and county adopted the goal in 2019 and approached NorthWestern, realizing they couldn’t achieve it without the help of the monopoly electric utility serving city residents, businesses and governments.
Bozeman and Helena don’t have an MOU with NorthWestern, but they have adopted similar energy-consumption goals and joined Missoula in the Big Sky Energy Collaborative to reach those goals. They’ve hired a consultant to design the all-green-energy product and rate that may be submitted to the PSC later this year.
The MOU, however, is not a binding legal document, and is more like a gentleman’s agreement between Missoula and NorthWestern, Maneta acknowledges.
Cunningham also says Bozeman electricity consumers can’t become carbon-free without the help of NorthWestern.
But the fast-growing city is prepared to pressure the company and highlight how its rhetoric about supporting green power doesn’t necessary match up with its actions, he adds.
“We would like their senior management and their shareholders to align their action with the public-relations message of a future that is primarily renewable,” Cunningham says. “Your customers are calling you out; your largest customers are asking for more renewable sources. And in business, if you ignore your customers, things don’t go well.”