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2024 Montana Primary elections

Report: Early Coal Plant Closures Increase Probability Of Blackouts, Remain Unlikely

NorthWestern Energy recently discussed their 20-year-plan at an economic seminar in Billings.
Nora Saks
Montana Public Radio
NorthWestern Energy recently discussed their 20-year-plan at an economic seminar in Billings.

The state’s largest utility has warned the public about the potential likelihood of an electricity blackout while talking about how it intends to build up its energy portfolio. 

As Yellowstone Public Radio News reports, a 2019 analysis shows the region could face potential shortages as coal-fired power plants retire in coming years, but doesn’t factor in new power projects likely to come online.

At a economic outlook seminar in Billings last month, NorthWestern Energy's Vice President for Energy Supply John Hines mentioned a study a regional energy council released last year.

“There’s now a 25 percent chance of a blackout because there’s insufficient electricity to serve our customers by 2026,” Hines said. 

NorthWestern has used the term blackout multiple times when talking to a public audience about its 20-year plan for sourcing energy.

Hines referenced the same Northwest Power and Conservation Council study at a teleconference in December. That’s when NorthWestern fielded questions about its intention to buy an added share of the Colstrip coal-fired power plant.“There was an article saying that the region is facing a 26 percent probability of a blackout between now and 2026 and folks, that issue for NorthWestern because of our shortage is even that much more severe," Hines said. 

The utility, which serves about 380,000 electric customers in Montana, has said it relies too much on buying energy on the open market. It’s used the 26 percent chance of blackout statistic to illustrate the seriousness of its need to build out its infrastructure and increase its self-made energy.

The number is a worst case scenario loss of load projection from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Supply Adequacy Assessment for 2024. The council, an Oregon-based, governmentally-established group that looks out for the energy interests of Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, releases resource adequacy projections five years out to give utilities time to acquire new resources.The assessment explores different scenarios where, if coal plants retire as expected in coming years and no new power supply sources come online, the region’s loss of load probability could grow to eight percent in 2024 and 17 percent in 2026.

Council Analyst Ben Kujala says a utility’s power supply can only be deemed adequate if it’s at or below a loss of load probability of 5 percent.

“So it can look pretty stark when you look at the adequacy assessment but I don’t think the next five years we’re gonna see the utilities just sit on their hands and do nothing. That’s pretty close to the world that the adequacy assessment describes," Kujala said. 

Kujala says the loss of load probability is the likelihood of a power supply shortfall. It factors in customer energy needs, system capacity and historical data to figure out how probable it is that demand will overrun capacity during a certain time period.

He says the council models a range of loss of load probabilities based on announced or possible major power plant closures. Its projections do not include additional infrastructure or energy resources that utilities plan to add or may add.

“I think there are a lot of people building new resources and looking at how they can plan for this transition. But this is definitely a signal that we need to be intent, we need to be careful, and we need to look at what are our alternatives and keep a close eye on the situation as things develop," Kujala said. 

The assessment says the region faces the 26 percent loss of load probability NorthWestern Energy has mentioned if coal plants in Wyoming and Montana retire on an earlier schedule. That includes the Jim Bridger 1, which operator PacifiCorps recently proposed retiring by the end of 2023.

However, the report says if the Jim Bridger 1 coal plant stays online, the potential for loss of load may only reach 17 percent by 2026.

On the other hand, possible early retirements of the Jim Bridger 2 plant in 2028 and Colstrip Units 3 and 4 as early as 2027 could cost the region another 1,700 megawatts of capacity.

Kujala says the bigger the shortfall between energy on hand versus customer demand, the more likely a utility would have a situation that would lead to a power cutoff or blackout.

“But drawing the actual line of when you cross this line, it definitely gets you to a blackout, we don’t have that information. That’d be pure speculation," Kujala said. 

Kujala says utilities can address loss of load without causing a blackout.

NorthWestern Energy’s John Hines in the past has used the terms synonymously at public events, but explained his use of the word “blackout” to YPR in more depth.

“My definition is pretty simple: not having enough electricity to serve our customers at any point in time," Hines said. 

Hines said if NorthWestern doesn’t have enough supply to serve customers during cold weather, it would take customers it’s not obligated to serve offline, often businesses or larger customers that have signed up for interruptible service in exchange for a lower rate.

“And then if we still had insufficient electricity, we’d would try to rotate blackouts across our service territory so that no specific locale would be affected for a very long time," Hines said. 

NorthWestern warns its customers that if it doesn’t build out its infrastructure, the utility may see energy insecurity like this in the next few years, although it hasn’t yet faced a regional loss of load in Montana.

Colstrip United, a coal advocacy group out of Colstrip in Eastern Montana, has taken NorthWestern’s blackout warnings to heart.The group helped organize a January listening session on NorthWestern’s 20-year plan for sourcing energy. Colstrip residents like Jonathan Logan aired concern about the chance of losing consistent energy.

“Whenever the growing blackouts are gonna start because the grid’s unstable, who do you think they’re gonna cut off power to? Let’s look at California. It’s Northern California and southern California where no one lives where stuff’s getting cut off. Not the big cities. So, really think about that. In the end, whenever the power starts getting cut, what are some of the first states on the chopping block? It’s gonna be us,” Logan said. 

Northwestern Energy’s 20-year-plan points to oil and gas as the cheapest and most reliable way to provide stakeholders energy in Montana. 

Meanwhile, some environmental advocacy groups like the Montana Environmental Information Center call NorthWestern’s use of the term blackout a scare tactic. 

Yellowstone spoke with Brian Fadie, MEIC’s Clean Energy Program Director.

Kayla Desroches: “What's your take on the likelihood of a loss of load in the state?”

Brian Fadie: “Just looking at the resource plans, you know, these 20-year resource plans for all of the other utilities in the region, no one is using the same language that Northwestern is using. 

All of the other utilities in the region - we're talking Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric, Avista, PacifiCorp, Idaho Power, are all being rather calm and, I would say, just normal in their operations here, planning for building new resources, each of them are, and each of them are including new clean energy resources - wind energy, solar energy, energy efficiency they plan to acquire in the near term and the long term.

And Northwestern is really just the outlier here with both the language that they’re using, which seems rather extreme these days, and with their own resource plan for the next 20 years.”

KD: “What are the takeaways that you want people to keep in mind when they're looking at the likelihood of a blackout or loss of load probability?”

BF: “I think everyone agrees. We all want affordable, reliable energy. You know, we have to start from that position because there's just unanimous agreement on that. And so, you just have to answer the question, how do you provide affordable, reliable energy? And, you know, the problem here just again seems to be that Northwestern is trying to tell Montanans one thing when every other utility in the region is saying something different.”

Environmental groups like MEIC maintain that Montana will sink its energy future even further by relying on coal-fired power over renewable energy.

Copyright 2020 Yellowstone Public Radio

Kayla Desroches reports for Yellowstone Public Radio in Billings. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed in the city for college, where she hosted a radio show that featured serialized dramas like the Shadow and Suspense. In her pathway to full employment, she interned at WNYC in New York City and KTOO in Juneau, Alaska. She then spent a few years on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, where she transitioned from reporter to news director before moving to Montana.
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