Missoulians united in opposition to NorthWestern Energy plan

Missoulians united in opposition to NorthWestern Energy plan

Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Invoking a recent Montana climate court case, many western Montana residents are calling for NorthWestern Energy to redo its energy management proposal for the next 20 years.

On Tuesday night, around 100 people gathered in the Missoula College Learning Center to participate in the Montana Public Service Commission’s listening session regarding NorthWestern Energy’s proposed Integrated Resource Plan.

Because it was a listening session, Commissioner Jennifer Fielder said commissioners wouldn’t answer questions and only comments related to the Integrated Management Plan would be considered. The public can send additional comments to the PSC until Aug. 28. Fielder and Annie Bukacek represented the commission along with PSC legal counsel Dan Polkow.

The tension in the audience was evident early when Fielder asked for a show of how many people intended to comment. When she made an estimate of 25, a few people questioned her, calling for a hand vote. Saying it was just an estimate, Fielder set a time limit of 3 minutes to allow everyone to speak during the two-hour session.

Of the 32 who came to the podium to provide comment, no one supported the corporate plan, a result similar to the other four listening sessions held last week in Billings, Bozeman, Helena and Great Falls. The commenters included former and current state legislators, representatives of nonprofit organizations, parents and grandparents.

“I know that the people in this room have much in common with the rest of NorthWestern’s ratepayers. We are Montanans, we care about each other, we know what’s good for us, and we are all sick of watching our rates go up while NorthWestern executives make thousands of dollars each every day,” said Missoula County resident Michael Hudson. “What you are hearing here today is no different from what you’ve heard all over the state.”

Energy utilities are periodically required to submit Integrated Resource Plans, which evaluate different potential generation resources that could meet the needs of electric service customers in Montana over 20 years. According to NorthWestern’s 2023 Plan, the resources best suited to address NorthWestern’s needs are flexible natural gas generation and long-duration energy storage resources. The plan does not identify specific new resources for addition to NorthWestern’s resource portfolio.

Many commenters quoted the PSC’s stated purpose of ensuring that Montana ratepayers have access to utilities that are “affordable, reliable, and sustainable for the long-term.” They said NorthWestern’s plan provides none of that, least of all affordability, because NorthWestern’s “captive ratepayers” already pay some of the highest rates in the nation and the corporation is asking for a 28% rate increase.

Monica Tranel. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Monica Tranel. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

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Monica Tranel, Missoula attorney and Congressional candidate, rattled off several problems with the plan, including misleading calculations of the cost of renewable energy. The plan doesn’t consider the use of long-duration battery storage, rooftop solar, Montana’s capacity for wind power or any of the federal funds now available to finance renewable energy or energy conservation infrastructure.

“It is an investor-owned utility; its primary duty is to serve its shareholders. That’s what this (integrated resource plan) is designed to do – serve the short-term profits of its shareholders,” Tranel said. “I would ask that the commission ensure that it has all the data it needs to make a full and fair assessment of this resource plan, to fully fund the intervenor process, and to require full modeling as necessary to get the accurate data that you need to make a good decision.”

Carolyn Bean, Missoula County Climate Action Program manager, said the plan used, without justification, only one type of computer model to calculate the costs of renewable energy, the PowerSim model, and used outdated figures for operations costs related to renewables. She suggested including two other models and better data.

Several commenters cited the findings of Montana district Judge Kathy Seeley in the climate case, Held v. Montana, published a week ago, which found the state had violated the constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by approving fossil fuel projects without considering climate change.

Amy Milch of Forward Montana pointed out that the 2023 Legislature had passed a law prohibiting the state’s consideration of any project’s climate effects, which had allowed NorthWestern Energy to move forward with plans to build a gas-fired power plant in Laurel. Held v. Montana has now negated that law so NorthWestern needs to return to the drawing board, Milch said.

Early in the session, Delores Anderson of Missoula spent 7 minutes referencing the testimony and several passages of the climate case before Fielder said her time was up. Anderson refused to stop, and a few audience members angrily called for Fielder to let Anderson finish. Fielder let Anderson talk for another 3 minutes, and then asked the audience to vote on whether people should be allowed to talk as long as they wanted or stick with the 3-minute limit. After some protest, the majority voted for the time limit.

Joseph Knapp, a former Missoula school board chair, later thanked the commissioners for listening, saying he understood a public-service job could be challenging. But he also understood one source of the audience’s anger.

“I learned on the school board that the single-most precious commodity that any one of us who serve the public have is trust. Can I be believed to be operating in a trustworthy fashion to serve those for whom I’m elected or appointed? I think that’s a key part of this discussion,” Knapp said.

Anne Hedges, Montana Environmental Information Center director, said the commission is not allowed to approve a plan that doesn’t meet minimum requirements, and the NorthWestern Energy plan fails to meet the majority of the rules set by the PSC.

Federal rules are also being proposed that NorthWestern will have to follow, including Environmental Protection Agency rules related to coal-combustion residuals, mercury and air toxics, greenhouse gases, and regional haze. The corporation will pass those costs on to the ratepayers but didn’t include the costs in the plan.

“This plan fails. Because NorthWestern has rigged the system; it has rigged its modeling, it has rigged the numbers, it has ignored important opportunities to decrease the cost of renewable energy,” Hedges said.

Greg Lind, former Missoula state senator, told the commissioners they should avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. In 2007, he chaired a Senate committee meeting on House Bill 25, which ended deregulation, allowing NorthWestern to buy its own power generation assets, and it allowed the PSC to approve power generation projects such as the Laurel gas plant before construction.

All that was the result of Montana Power executives pushing the Legislature for deregulation in 1997 before selling off its hydroelectric dams, coal mines and power plants for $2.7 billion. NorthWestern Energy ended up with the transmission lines.

“We had to pay for those resources several times over. They have gotten it wrong in the past,” Lind said. “Make them set realistic rates and contract terms for us who are left here. We live in uncertain times. Shorten the contracts up. Don’t let them write contracts that lock us in for 30, 40 years to pay for their stranded resources.”

To submit written comments on NorthWestern Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan, send comments to the PSC at 1701 Prospect Avenue, P.O. Box 202601, Helena, MT, 59620-2601 or email pschelp@mt.gov.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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