Energy consumption estimates in Montana

Montana energy consumption estimates.

The difference stances taken by Missoula’s elected officials and statewide lawmakers on the issue of fossil fuels — and the need to act on climate change — remains stark. Meanwhile, a new report shows Montana’s coal production increased in 2018, and oil and gas lease permits nearly doubled.

And just last Wednesday, the Missoula City Council’s Committee of the Whole, along with the Missoula County Board of Commissioners, adopted a plan to commit to 100 percent clean energy by 2030.

“This is a bold and ambitious enterprise that we’re embarking on,” explained county Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “The year 2030 is not far off. We face a clear and imminent danger to the atmosphere of this planet, and if ever there was an emergency before us, this is it."

Scientists have concluded the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change, and the effects will likely lead to worse droughts and wildfires in Montana, which could hurt tourism revenue and harm children's lungs.

Strohmaier and his fellow commissioners also recently approved a one-year interim zoning resolution that forces new or expanding cryptocurrency miners to buy or create 100 percent new clean energy.

"Unfortunately yet again, local government is in a position responding in spite of, not because of, what’s happening at the federal and state level in Helena, so we’re advancing legislation unilaterally on our own," Strohmaier said. "My glass remains half full on this.”

Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, said during a congressional hearing on April 3 that a plan to end all consumption of coal-fired electricity in Washington state within the next six years would have “devastating impacts on Montana and (its) communities.”

Gianforte was citing a 2018 report from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana that found that if Units 3 and 4 of the Colstrip electrical generation station were shut down early, because of a lack of demand from Washington, Montana would lose $5.2 billion in income and 3,000 jobs. During the hearing, Gianforte also described how Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s efforts to prevent coal exports out of Washington’s ports would “undermine trade and America’s role in the world.”

And in March, the Billings Gazette reported that a Republican member of Montana’s Public Service Commission, Brad Johnson, argued for a Republican-backed bill in the Montana Legislature, SB 331, that would “keep Colstrip running by shielding Colstrip from growing public concern about climate change in Oregon and Washington, where most of Colstrip’s energy is consumed.”

Critics have argued the bill would saddle NorthWestern Energy ratepayers with the financial burden of buying more coal-fired power.

“This thinly veiled attempt by NorthWestern to increase corporate profits at the expense of ratepayers is a bad deal for Montana energy customers, and we would urge the Montana Legislature to reject this bill,” said Jake Brown of the Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund.

The PSC's own analysts have estimated the original plan to bail out Colstrip could cost each Northwestern Energy customer $721, and may not even work.

As the debate over where Montana’s energy should come from shows no signs of slowing, a new report from the University of Montana shows oil, coal and gas production is on the increase here.

Bill Whitsitt, a former public affairs executive for Devon Energy in Oklahoma and a longtime energy policy analyst in Montana, wrote a report for the Bureau of Business and Economic Research looking at trends in the energy sector here.

“We are seeing an uptick in oil and gas permitting by the Montana Board of Oil and Gas,” he said. “Fifty-nine new-well permits were issued in roughly the first 11 months of 2018, compared with 35 for all of 2017.”

Whitsitt said a number of Texas-based oil and gas companies remain “strong participants” in Montana’s energy economy.

“They and others see the state as one of the better places to do business,” Whitsitt wrote.

Montanans benefit from cheap power, but they use a lot of it, he said.

Montana’s average residential electricity cost was 35th in the nation at 11.51 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2018, compared to No. 1 Hawaii at 32.40 cents. However, the latest available data shows Montana ranks 15th in total energy consumption per capita and 14th in total energy expenditures per capita.

“Factors such as cold winters and long driving distances undoubtedly contribute to these trends,” Whitsitt said.

He said there has been a general decline in coal demand in the U.S., with plant closures tied to environmental concerns and natural gas competition.

“Yet, there are early indications of some changing coal dynamics,” Whitsitt said. “Montana coal production increased in 2018. In December, it was on pace to reach 38 million tons, or 3 million tons more than in 2017. The reason could be a higher demand for coal elsewhere in the world.”

Whitsitt said Montana ranks fifth in the nation for producing hydropower, as 23 dams provide almost 40 percent of the state’s electricity generation. Windmill generators provide about 8 percent of the state’s power generation. But Whitsitt said wind is a little bit unreliable due to the fact that it varies by season and even time of day, and doesn’t match up when demand is highest.

“This situation can cause significant challenges for integrating renewables into Montana’s energy mix,” he said. “Solutions like large-scale battery and pumped hydro storage are in the works. The state’s utilities and cooperatives continue to seek improvements to systems and processes to ensure reliability of power and reasonable consumer costs. In addition, small 'microgrids' and off-grid power will be part of Montana’s energy future.”

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