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Critics say NorthWestern Energy plan relies too much on fossil fuels

NorthWestern Energy building in Butte, Montana.
Nora Saks
NorthWestern Energy building in Butte, Montana.

Every three years Montana’s largest electric utility tells the public how it’s planning to meet energy demands, which is going on now. And it follows a major court ruling that found the state’s energy policy is contributing to climate change. MTPR’s Austin Amestoy sat down with reporter Ellis Juhlin to break down where NorthWestern’s plan fits into the new legal landscape.

Austin Amestoy: Ellis, it sounds like this planning document released by NorthWestern Energy is a pretty routine occurrence with it happening every three years or so. But this year's plan is attracting a lot of attention. Why?

Ellis Juhlin: Well, Austin, most people in western Montana get their energy from NorthWestern Energy. Rising utility costs and concerns about how energy production contributes to climate change have a lot of people thinking about this.

Austin Amestoy: And Ellis, you went to some public meetings about NorthWestern's most recent plan for getting energy to its customers. What are some of those customers saying about it?

Ellis Juhlin: The meeting that I went to in Missoula had over 160 people there, and over 30 people gave public comment, all expressing their concerns with the plan. Joe Loos, who lives in Milltown, said that NorthWestern needs to take greater responsibility for its climate impacts.

Joe Loos: My wife and I live in a manufactured home court near Milltown, where we and all our neighbors could well face being driven out of our home by a wildfire. That won't be a cost to NorthWestern Energy, but it should be if they're permitted to impose this plan that continues recklessly increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Ellis Juhlin: Another concern that came up a lot was NorthWestern wanting to expand investment in Colstrip. It's rare for a utility to be doing that at a time when so many are moving away from coal and investing in renewable energy.

Austin Amestoy: So this document is supposed to tell us where NorthWestern plans to source its energy. What are its electricity generation plans looking like at this point?

Ellis Juhlin: Currently, NorthWestern's portfolio in Montana is about 58% renewable. That's predominantly coming from hydropower and dams and wind. And then 23% of their portfolio is coming from coal and the rest is other fossil fuel based energy sources. NorthWestern has said time and time again that this plan is not a recommendation of any resource type or mix of resources. But ratepayers and environmental groups are worried that the company is investing in coal and building a brand new gas plant in Laurel on top of that.

Austin Amestoy: So is NorthWestern saying anything about why it's not making similar investments in renewables?

Ellis Juhlin: Yeah, that's a great question. NorthWestern said there isn't realistic storage capacity for renewables and they need fossil fuels to keep the lights on during times of extreme weather in particular, like the cold snap we saw last winter. Criticism of the plan said that NorthWestern is overestimating the cost of renewables and using out-of-date information about how renewable energy can be stored and used since that technology has really expanded in recent years. There's also ongoing legal battles over that Laurel gas plant. That plant was a key center of debate during the legislative session, where we saw a bill brought to continue construction on the plant and also during the youth led climate trial Held v. Montana where, ultimately that bill was struck down. Despite all of that, the Laurel facility is still being built, although there's some arguments still playing out in court.

Austin Amestoy: Right, and you mentioned Held v. Montana there, Ellis. And the big development there is that the youth plaintiffs in that case did win their argument that Montana's contributing to climate change. Does that really mean NorthWestern could get caught up in the ripple effect?

Ellis Juhlin: The Held decision doesn't force NorthWestern Energy or the state to cut back on using fossil fuels. The judge's ruling says that the state can reject new energy development on the basis of climate change, but that isn't any sort of requirement. This means that things like the construction of that Laurel gas plant can continue as planned.

Austin Amestoy: Ellis, what are you watching for as this final plan from NorthWestern takes shape?

Ellis Juhlin: So, step number next in this process is state regulators will have their say after they conduct an independent review looking at the models and data that NorthWestern has in this plan. I'll be interested to see what they have to say to NorthWestern, taking into account public comment. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out over the next three years and beyond.

Austin Amestoy: Ellis, thanks so much for digging into this for us.

Ellis Juhlin: Sure. Thanks for talking with me.

Corrected: November 1, 2023 at 10:32 AM MDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that NorthWestern Energy planned to rely entirely on renewables by 2050. The utility has plans for net-zero carbon and methane emissions by 2050. The utility's net-zero plans include use of nuclear power, purchasing carbon offsets to negate ongoing emissions, and allowances to purchase nonrenewable-derived energy from third parties. We regret the error.
Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
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