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Concern about the climate crisis may be what’s driving utilities to embrace clean energy in some parts of the country. But right here in the Mountain West the transition away from burning fossil fuels for electricity is just a matter of dollars and cents. Montana’s largest utility, Northwestern Energy, seems to have missed the memo.

No one would accuse Idaho of being far-left environmentalists, but earlier this year that state’s largest utility made a bold announcement: they’re moving towards an earlier exit from their coal plants, replacing that electricity with a huge new solar farm at a record low price, and committing to move beyond fossil fuels completely by 2045.

More recently Wyoming utility and Colstrip co-owner PacifiCorp submitted a long-range plan that determined that the most affordable choice for its customers was earlier retirements of several aging coal plants and replacing them with mostly wind, solar and energy storage solutions like batteries and pumped hydro.

This region-wide move towards cheaper, cleaner energy makes NorthWestern Energy’s recently released long-range plan for Montana all the more puzzling.

NorthWestern’s resource procurement plan predicts that Colstrip Units 3 and 4 will run into the 2040s, though the plant's co-owners are preparing to leave as soon as 2025 amid escalating fuel and operations costs. This lack of planning puts NorthWestern customers at risk of sudden rate hikes and puts Colstrip workers at risk of a sudden closure without an adequate plan for economic transition.

Earlier this year the utility nearly succeeded in convincing the Montana state legislature to give them a blank check to buy up more coal power and pass on higher costs to customers without any oversight. The bill was eventually scuttled by fiscally conservative Republicans concerned about electricity rate increases; the Montana Consumer Council has found that electricity from Colstrip is roughly three times the price of Montana wind projects.

In their response to the draft version of this resource plan, the Montana Public Service Commission asked NorthWestern to show their math on why buying more Colstrip power would be in the best interests of customers. The final plan ignores this request, leaving the public and state regulators in the dark.

Given the lack of transparency and NorthWestern’s repeated attempts to go it alone in running Colstrip, we’re concerned that the utility may be trying yet again. Colstrip workers deserve help, but making every Montana family and business pay more for electricity isn’t a fair or sustainable way to do that. Instead, NorthWestern and its shareholders should follow the lead of out-of-state co-owners like Puget Sound Energy and Avista and help fund economic diversification efforts in Colstrip. Making sure that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality requires a robust clean up plan for the leaking, toxic coal ash ponds would also mean more jobs for displaced coal workers for decades to come.

Though utilities just across state lines are finding that clean energy and storage solutions are cheaper than building new fossil fuels, Northwestern claims that meeting its customers’ needs with clean energy would cost $523 million more than continued fossil fuel investments. How could the economics of clean energy compared to fossil fuels be so different in Montana than Idaho or Wyoming?

The Public Service Commission is taking public comment on NorthWestern’s plan through Jan. 3, 2020. You can weigh in by emailing psc_utilitycomment@mt.gov. The commission will also hold a public hearing on Dec. 9 in Helena.

Montana has a long history of having to clean up after risky bets by its utilities. Let’s not let NorthWestern Energy burden Montana families and businesses with the same mistakes, again.

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Mike Scott is a Billings-based senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club. David Merrill is a Missoula-based senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club.

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