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Key to energy future is diversified portfolio
Guest column

Key to energy future is diversified portfolio

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Monica Tranel

Tranel

In the summer of 2018, the corporations, including NorthWestern Energy, that own and operate the Colstrip 4 generating station had to shut the plant down because it was exceeding allowable pollution limits. During the shutdown, NorthWestern had to buy replacement power.

NorthWestern is now asking the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) for permission to charge its customers — Montana families and businesses — an extra $24 million for that replacement power. That is on top of paying NorthWestern the costs of Colstrip while it wasn’t working, which include profit to NorthWestern.

2018 was not the first time Colstrip 4 went offline unexpectedly. In 2013, botched maintenance work put the plant out of commission for over a month. Then, as now, NorthWestern had to buy replacement power, and it went to the PSC asking for an additional $8 million charge to Montanans. As an attorney for the Montana Consumer Counsel at the time, I opposed NorthWestern’s request in front of the PSC. The PSC agreed with our argument and Montana’s families and businesses kept our $8 million.

There are some important lessons to be learned from these incidents.

One of those lessons is that it simply isn’t fair to ask Montanans to pay for the same electricity twice. As ratepayers, we are required to pay for NorthWestern’s generating plants, and in return, NorthWestern is expected to supply us with electricity. If they fail to do that, it should be on them. We should not have to pay for replacement power when NorthWestern fails to keep Colstrip running. As a commissioner, I will always fight for fair rates for Montana families and businesses.

A second important lesson is that whenever it can, NorthWestern will try to shift risk from its owners to its customers. There’s nothing surprising about that, but the problem is that as a monopoly supplier of power, NorthWestern can make the shift pretty easily. The commission’s job is to protect the customers and to keep that from happening. If the PSC made the customers pick up the tab every time NorthWestern imprudently allowed something to go wrong, it wouldn’t just be unfair — it would also give NorthWestern very little incentive to keep things from going wrong in the first place.

And finally, there’s this to consider: NorthWestern has been trying to get legislative and PSC approval to buy a bigger share of Colstrip 4 based on its claim that it is a “reliable” source of power. But it’s not — as demonstrated by NorthWestern’s open request to have us pay for replacement power while it was off line. The plant is old, outmoded, and costly. These shutdowns demonstrate that it can go off-line at any time. When that has happened, we haven’t “frozen in the dark.” The provision of vital services has not ground to a halt. No, when the plant has shut down, NorthWestern has been able to reliably provide us with power, not because of Colstrip 4, but in spite of it.

The lesson here is that the key to reliable, affordable and sustainable energy is not to put all our eggs in the basket of an aging coal fired power plant, but to build out a diversified portfolio of renewable energy resources, adequate storage and efficient, effective energy conservation measures.

That is the energy future I will work for as a Public Service Commissioner.

Monica Tranel is an attorney who has represented renewable energy clients in front of the Montana Public Service Commission. She worked as a staff attorney for the PSC and the Montana Consumer Counsel. She lives in Missoula and is a Democratic candidate for the PSC, District 4.

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