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Colstrip file

In this file photo from January, the Colstrip power plant stands over the town of Colstrip. 

The top elected officials for both Missoula County and the City of Missoula have told the state’s largest energy utility that renewable power such as solar and wind will save money for consumers.

NorthWestern Energy is currently soliciting public comment on its Draft 2019 Electricity Supply Resource Procurement Plan. The plan calls for doubling the company’s power generation, and highlights natural gas resources as providing “the lowest cost portfolio,” and says a 100% carbon-free portfolio with no gas or coal-fired power would be “cost prohibitive.

About 95% of the electricity consumed in Missoula is purchased from NorthWestern right now, and 61% of NorthWestern’s current power generation comes from renewable sources. However, Missoula County officials want the utility to consider the “full, long-term costs of energy resource choices.”

On Thursday, all three county commissioners — Dave Strohmaier, Josh Slotnick and Cola Rowley — joined Mayor John Engen and City Council President Bryan von Lossberg in signing a letter to NorthWestern president and CEO Bob Rowe. They asked him to heed the demand of consumers for low-cost renewable energy.

“Over the long-term, a transition to more renewables will save money,” they wrote. “As you know, the price of the costs of solar and wind energy have declined precipitously in recent years, and the costs of energy storage technologies, especially batteries, are declining even faster.”

Ratepayers ultimately pay for whatever power NorthWestern Energy provides, and the five elected officials believe renewable sources will prove to be the least expensive option over both the short and long term.

“Renewable resources also have the advantages of zero fuel cost, reducing the risk of price volatility for consumers,” they wrote. “They do not require the construction of costly fuel infrastructure such as gas pipelines. They do not emit hazardous air pollutants or greenhouse gases. And unlike thermal power plants, solar and wind farms will never leave their owners on the hook for large cleanup costs.”

The county and the city recently committed to buying 100% clean energy by the year 2030 in order to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change caused by human burning of fossil fuels.

Slotnick pointed to a recent study from Yale University that found that if humans do nothing to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the annual costs associated with climate change will exceed $220 billion.

“We are encouraging (NorthWestern) to do a full and complete accounting, not just of the initial short-term cost of what it’s going to take to bring new generation online but to think about the cleanup later,” he said. “And the climate change costs are astronomical — hundreds of billions of dollars every year dealing with climate refugees and the costs of natural disasters. So, do a complete accounting when making a choice of what procurement avenues to follow.”

Strohmaier agreed that NorthWestern’s draft plan doesn’t factor in all costs down the road.

“When the utility is looking at what is low cost, we are also very interested in them taking a broad expansive vision of cost such that you’re accounting for what are the costs to maintain energy generation facility,” he said. “I think it’s pretty clearly been established that solar and wind are fairly low cost from an operation and maintenance standpoint compared to thermal generation."

State regulators recently estimated that cleaning up the coal-ash ponds from the Colstrip electricity generating station in eastern Montana could cost as much as $700 million, and some of that burden will fall on utility customers, according to the Billings Gazette.

"As I think we’re seeing play out in Colstrip, there are a lot of costs that will come home to roost decades from now by way of cleanup and not to mention all the other impacts to the climate from those modes of fossil fuel energy generation," Strohmaier said.

The 2017 Montana Climate Assessment found that human-caused climate change will cause precipitation in the state to decrease during the summer months by the middle of this century while increasing average temperatures and hampering the ability of forests to rebound from fire. The American Lung Association recently found that climate change is causing more wildfires in western Montana, which is causing Missoula’s air pollution levels to be among the highest in the nation.

Commissioner Rowley said the negative effects of climate change are being disproportionately shouldered by kids and the elderly.

“It really effects the most vulnerable populations of communities,” she said. “Children being exposed have lifelong effects.”

Slotnick said he’s not convinced that power from natural gas is any cheaper than renewable energy.

“I would have to see proof of that,” he said. “NorthWestern is talking about making fantastically large investments, and these investments are spread out across time. They’re not thinking about what’s the budget for this year for whatever investment they make, whether it’s natural gas or solar and the costs to ratepayers.”

They wrote in their letter that nonpartisan polling has shown that 90% of Montanans support increased use of solar energy and 86% support increased use of wind energy to meet the state’s future needs.

“And that support is not limited to Missoula,” they wrote.

Utilities in Idaho, New Mexico and elsewhere have committed to 100% carbon-free power, they noted. The city and the county both get their energy from NorthWestern as do the majority of the 117,000 people here.

Last year at the Missoula Clean Energy Expo, the mayor said he supported a city plan to commit to 100% renewable energy within the next 16 years.

“That may or not be easy but if you don’t aspire you expire,” Engen said. “And we will aspire all day long.”

Engen said doing that will require hard choices and partners.

“Some of those partners may or may not be willing or be able to be at the table,” he noted. “But we’ll keep coaxing and cajoling and begging and borrowing to make sure those partners are where we need them to be so we can move forward.”

NorthWestern is taking public comments until Sunday, May 5. The comments can be submitted at northwesternenergy.com/environment/energy-supply.

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