Have you ever been in a traffic jam in Montana? Residents of the fourth-largest state are spared for the most part from the frustrations of congested traffic because of the size of our population, about 1.06 million in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Montana’s 145,556 square miles are also the reason the electric transmission systems that connect us are an important part of this state’s infrastructure. The Colstrip Transmission System, a 250-mile, 500-kilovolt line running west from Colstrip to Townsend to its interconnection with the Bonneville Power Administration, is a critical piece of that infrastructure.
The future of that line today is tied to regulations and decisions in other Pacific Northwest states. The line is jointly owned by the owners of the Colstrip Power Plant. NorthWestern Energy operates the Colstrip Transmission System and has a 31 percent ownership in that asset today.
The continued viability of that line is critical to the reliable energy service provided by NorthWestern Energy to our Montana customers.
Unfortunately, the line isn’t critical to the other owners of the Colstrip Power Plant, those with out-of-state customers. Those owners want out of Colstrip and when they are gone, they no longer need the Colstrip Transmission System.
Montana does. We need that transmission line for reliability. The Colstrip Transmission System effectively ties together the lower transmission voltage systems in Montana at Colstrip, Broadview and Garrison. It is our path to the energy markets in the West for both critical supply and to sell energy, specifically wind and solar power, to those markets.
Senate Bill 331 not only provides a chance for NorthWestern Energy to buy an additional 150 megawatt share of Colstrip Unit 4, but it provides a chance for the purchase of additional ownership of the Colstrip Transmission System.
Montana must have more influence in the future of that transmission line. If it is decommissioned, NorthWestern Energy will have to make significant investments in other transmission line assets. These investments would likely far exceed the depreciated costs of the entire Colstrip Transmission System — including the portion of the system owned by the other Colstrip participants.
What would happen if Interstate 90 from Miles City to Livingston was decommissioned? Or Interstate 15 from Shelby to Butte? On Montana’s electric grid, the 250-mile Colstrip Transmission System has that kind of value. Its loss would be a huge financial and infrastructural blow to this state.
We cannot afford to allow that to happen.