Missoula’s agreement with NorthWestern Energy could be bad for Missoula and for the climate
Guest column

Missoula’s agreement with NorthWestern Energy could be bad for Missoula and for the climate

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While we are grateful for the city council members and county commissioners who support an equitable transition to 100% clean electricity, we are skeptical that the recently negotiated draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) with NorthWestern Energy will help us achieve that goal. This is especially true if the agreement weakens Missoula’s elected officials’ willingness to publicly challenge the utility’s determined drive to expand its fossil fuel portfolio by acquiring more coal-burning capacity and building new gas plants.

Look no further than NorthWestern Energy’s recent electricity supply plan, which lays out the types of energy the utility hopes to employ over the next 20 years. Astoundingly, and in contrast to utilities in the region and around the world, their plan calls for exactly zero new renewable energy investments.

We are concerned that the legally non-binding Missoula/NorthWestern Energy MOU does not accurately reflect the values and priorities motivating the 100% clean electricity resolution passed by Missoula City and County, and that NorthWestern Energy’s goals are incompatible with the clear intent of that document.

The original Missoula resolution calls for drastic reductions in carbon emissions. But in this MOU, that language and urgency has been limited to a commitment to “mutually beneficial energy projects” that “advance” Missoula’s goals. Nowhere in this MOU does NorthWestern Energy commit to providing Missoula with 100% clean electricity nor does the utility even commit to actually supporting Missoula’s 100% clean electricity goal.

Given NorthWestern Energy’s track record of obfuscation, we are very concerned that the company intends to use this process as a propaganda weapon to muffle criticism of its destructive and dishonest behavior, such as its attempts to keep burning coal at the Colstrip power plant until 2042, construct expensive gas plants and its purposeful undervaluing of renewable energy. We believe that when concerned Montanans call out NorthWestern Energy for trying to saddle ratepayers with their costly and climate-destabilizing coal and gas expansion, the utility will point to this agreement with Missoula as proof that their intentions are good.

NorthWestern Energy inserted greenwashing language into the MOU by listing small renewable energy demonstration projects meant to improve its public image and by lauding its goal of “reducing the carbon intensity of its electric energy generation 90 percent by 2045, from a 2010 baseline,” even though such an objective would make achieving Missoula’s goal all but impossible. It is still very unclear that NorthWestern Energy will help Missoula reach 100% clean electricity by 2030 or even the interim goal of 80% clean electricity by 2025.

NorthWestern Energy is the only electric utility in the country trying to buy a larger share of a coal plant. And NorthWestern chooses to ignore the fact that “clean energy portfolios” composed of wind, solar, efficiency measures and other components can cost-competitively provide the same electricity, with the same reliability, as gas plants. Indeed entire countries already have 100% renewable electricity.

In our own region, Idaho Power announced an earlier exit from the North Valmy coal plant, with that electricity being replaced by a huge new solar farm at a record low price. Wyoming utility PacifiCorp’s long range plan said the most affordable choice for its customers was earlier retirements of several aging coal plants paired with a massive investment in wind and solar energy, as well as energy storage solutions like batteries and pumped hydro.

100% clean electricity means no fossil fuels. That is the vision that excites us. Period. Full stop. Any MOU with our electric utility that refuses to even mention, let alone commit to stopping, NorthWestern Energy’s unrelenting drive to increase its fossil fuel burning, we simply cannot support.

David Merrill, senior organizing representative, Sierra Club

Summer Nelson, director, Montana Sierra Club

Caitlin Piserchia, community organizer, Montana Sierra Club

Eliot Thompson, Sierra Club volunteer

Jeff Smith, co-chair, 350 Montana Leadership Team

Carla Abrams, co-chair, 350 Montana Leadership Team

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