A controversial bill to change the state’s regulation of NorthWestern Energy in a potential deal at Colstrip cleared a critical vote Wednesday in the Senate.
The proposal encourages the state’s largest monopoly utility to increase its operating share of energy production at one of the coal-fired power plant's four units.
It’s unclear if or when that purchase would happen, and there is no law preventing NorthWestern from making that deal now.
However, Senate Bill 331 would allow NorthWestern to pass up to $75 million in potential costs related to that purchase to utility customers without regulatory oversight, for 10 years.
Sen. Tom Richmond, a Republican from Billings, is carrying the bill. He says the bill allows NorthWestern to buy up to an additional 150 megawatts at Colstrip if one of the current owners at the plant chooses to sell.
“So what this bill does is it capitalizes on that philosophy of being away from coal. Presents an opportunity to Montana to purchase additional reliable power for a bargain price," Richmond says.
Senate Bill 331 says NorthWestern could buy an increased share at the power plant for a dollar.
Sen. Duane Ankney, a Republican from Colstrip, says the bill helps provide some promise of a stable future for the town of Colstrip, which has been cast into uncertainty as some utility companies with ownership shares in the power plant transition away from coal-fired power.
“It keeps 350 power plant workers working," Ankney says. "And it keeps about the same number of miners working.”
But critics warn of possible dangers of deregulation and unknown impacts on power bills.
“It protects the utility shareholders and it puts any potential risks on the ratepayers," says Sen. Mary McNally, a Democrat from Billings. "That’s what this bill does.”
A majority of the all-Republican Montana Public Services Committee, in charge of regulating utilities, is supporting Senate Bill 331. However, PSC staff attorneys said an earlier version of the bill would disrupt the regulatory balance of power between the utility company and its customers.
The bill must pass a final vote in the Senate before it moves to the House for consideration.