Units 1 and 2 of the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip will permanently close at the end of this year. Plant operator Talen Energy made that announcement in a press release Tuesday, saying the company has been unsuccessful in making the units economically viable. Talen says the plant’s newer units, 3 and 4, will remain open.
The closure of Colstrip’s older coal-burning units is the latest ripple from changing customer demands, environmental laws, and economics that are all driving the West Coast energy markets — which the power plant primarily serves — away from coal-fired power.
State Sen. Duane Ankney, a retired coal miner from Colstrip, says the closure of the plant’s two older units was expected, but not until 2022. Ankney says it’s still devastating to the town and workers.
"I don’t think they was really ready for it. You’re never ready for something like this. But that being said, I think they’re very resilient in Colstrip and I think they’ll continue to be a very strong community."
A 2016 settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center under the federal Clean Air Act resulted in Talen announcing plans to shut down Units 1 and 2 in 2022. So Tuesday’s announcement was a surprise.
Dale Lebsack, Talen Montana president, said in the company's announcement that the decision came, “After extensive review and exhaustive efforts over the last few years to address the financial challenges that these units face."
The company says there were growing costs associated with Westmoreland Rosebud Mining, which operates the adjacent strip mine which supplies the plant with coal.
Washington state-based Puget Sound Energy (PSE), the other owner of Colstrip Units 1 and 2, says its customers want a better energy future. PSE’s Director of Generation and Natural Gas Storage Ron Roberts said in a statement that, "helping our state transition from coal, along with billions we’re invested in renewable energy, is helping make that vision a reality."
In May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law requiring the state to transition to a carbon-free electric grid by 2045.
Jeff Fox, with the advocacy group Renewable Northwest, says the large electric lines that currently carry Colstrip power from Montana to the West Coast could soon have more space available that wind energy could fill.
"There are wind energy projects around Colstrip now, ready to develop that have been identified by West Coast utilities as a good resource for their customers," Fox says.
According to Talen, the coal-fired generation plant employees around 320 people in Colstrip.
A Talen spokesperson said in an email that the company’s goal is to, "Minimize the effect on employees," but did not say how many workers might be impacted by the closure.
The company says it aims to transition employees to work retiring Units 1 and 2 or the operation and maintenance of Units 3 and 4. The two older units represent about 30 percent of Colstrip’s total generating capacity, at about 617 megawatts.
Puget Sound Energy says it plans to give $10 million to fund community transition planning in Colstrip.
Colstrip Sen. Duane Ankney says the big immediate impact he sees on the town is the value of people’s homes.
"That’s where it really hurts me that those people have invested the kind of money they have in homes and stuff in Colstrip, and in the short term — and maybe in the long term — but I think in the short term their houses ain't worth nothing really, or are very reduced."
In a statement Tuesday, Montana’s Republican congressman Greg Gianforte said Colstrip provided affordable, reliable electricity to Montanans for a long time, but, "The war on coal has jeopardized Colstrip and good-paying jobs for hardworking Montanans."
In his press release U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, also a Republican, called Tuesday a sad day for Montana, the town of Colstrip and energy security.
He characterized the news as, "Yet another example of the devastating impacts of extreme environmental regulations, fringe litigation and partisan politics."
Sen. Daines is in the early stages of his re-election campaign. Rep. Gianforte recently announced that he is running for governor.
Democrat Jon Tester issued a statement saying, "This news is surprising, and I’ll be working to make sure Talen isn’t leaving workers out to dry, and is keeping the community and employees informed about what they can expect in this process."
Tester added that he’ll hold the company accountable for a thorough cleanup of the site.
Talen says colstrip Units 1 and 2 will close by December 31 of this year.