By - Jim Vess

Montana legislative effort to prop up the coal-fired Colstrip power plant stalls

Energize Weekly, May 8, 2019

Last-minute efforts to bail out the Colstrip coal-fired power plant and keep it running stalled in the Montana legislature as the session ended April 26.

The Colstrip bill was defeated in the Montana House of Representatives April 16 on a 60-to-37 vote. The Republican sponsors then tried to find a home for elements of the legislation as amendments in bills still pending, but failed in the effort.

The 778-megawatt (MW) Colstrip Power Plant in Colstrip, a town of about 2,200 people in the southeast corner of the state, is slated to close two of its units in 2022 and the entire plant by 2027.

The Colstrip plant is owned by six utilities, only one of which—Sioux Falls, S.D.-based NorthWestern Energy—is interested in the continued operation of the plant.

The bill would have enabled NorthWestern Energy, which has a 222-MW share in Unit 4, to buy Colstrip’s newest 150-MW unit for $1 and pass the savings to customers. There would have been no review by the Montana Public Service Commission (MPSC).

Supporters of the bill said that the early closure of Colstrip would lead to brownouts, while opponents raised concerns about the risk of additional cleanup costs for the utility’s 370,000 Montana customers.

After the bill passed out of committee, Travis Kavulla, a former MPSC commissioner, said, “I have honestly never seen a piece of legislation that is so completely ridiculous in the political balance that it tries to strike.” Kavulla is now director of energy and environment for the free-market think tank, R Street.

Among the other owners of the Colstrip plant are PacifiCorp, Avista, Portland General Electric and Puget Sound Energy. They all serve parts of Washington and Oregon, two states looking to end getting electricity from coal-fired generation. A Washington law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in April, mandates no electricity from coal-fired generation by 2025. The sixth owner and the plant’s operator is Allentown, Pa.-based Talen Energy.

“It’s fantastic news that this bill didn’t pass, as now Montanans won’t be forced to hand over millions of dollars to NorthWestern Energy without any recourse,” Mike Scott, senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said in a statement. “Now it’s time to get serious about diversifying our economy and replacing expensive coal power with clean energy.”

In March, NorthWestern Energy released a draft of its bi-annual Montana Electricity Supply Resource Procurement Plan for a 60-day public comment period. The plan proposes adding 200 MW of capacity each year from 2022 to 2025.

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