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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

New Plan To Allow NorthWestern Energy To Buy Bigger Share Of Colstrip

Colstrip power plant, Colstrip Montana.
Flicker User ambib (CC-BY-NC)
Colstrip power plant, Colstrip Montana.

A plan to allow the state’s largest electric utility to buy a bigger share of the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip is taking a new form. The so-called Montana Energy Security Act of 2019 was introduced Wednesday in the state Legislature.

Hours after senators voted to table a prior proposal to allow NorthWestern Energy to buy more of Colstrip and pass along certain costs to their customers for up to 30 years, a similar idea landed in the hopper.

Consumer protection advocates and environmental groups objected to the first proposal, saying it would saddle utility bill payers with unknown costs.

However, Sen. Tom Richmond, a Republican from Billings, says his new bill is more focused and places limits on a possible purchase at Colstrip by NorthWestern.

Richmond says it would cap NorthWestern’s potential buy at Colstrip at up to 150 megawatts. He says it would also give Montana’s Public Service Commission greater authority to regulate potential costs passed on to NorthWestern’s customers.

“The sideboards are that they can recover up to $40 million over a five year period, so about $8 million a year,” Richmond says.

However, critics of the new proposal say the costs to ratepayers could be greater.

Anne Hedges is with the Montana Environmental Information Center.

“This allows NorthWestern to not only pass through all costs for remediation and decommissioning, which we know are significant now. It allows them to buy an increased interest in the facility. In addition to any other costs they request the (Public Service) Commission to approve, because of their increased ownership share.”

Backers of the new bill say will allow the utility company to buy into reliable baseload power needed during times of peak energy consumption, like during the recent winter freezes.

The proposal, Senate Bill 331, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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