The final week of June began with another dire report on the future of Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant. Prepared by the Missoula-based Bureau of Business and Economic Research and paid for by the Montana Chamber Foundation, the report states that early shuttering of Units 3 and 4 in 2027 would trigger 16 years of devastating impacts to Montana’s economy, from the loss of more than 3,000 jobs statewide to a $1.2 billion slump in state revenues. And NorthWestern Energy customers would likely see electric rates increase, the report continued, due to the costs of remediation and the necessity of replacing roughly 220 megawatts of capacity.
If the report’s image of a Colstrip-free Montana is bleak, the value of keeping it open in the long term is presented as equally unsavory in another study released two days later, on June 27. This one comes from Energy Strategies at the behest of the Sierra Club, and compares the costs of power from Portland-based PacifiCorp’s coal-fired fleet — including its 10 percent ownership of Colstrip Units 3 and 4 — to alternative energy sources. The data reveals that PacifiCorp would pay $1 to $4 less per megawatt hour (MWH) for Utah-produced solar power compared to Colstrip power, and up to $15 less per MWH for Wyoming-produced wind energy.
“Solar and wind, combined with battery storage, the price keeps dropping and becoming a straightforward economic decision,” says David Merrill, senior organizing representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Missoula. “Then you have to look at all the other risks for coal-fired electricity — the coal-ash issue, threat of carbon regulations — and it’s just a tightening noose. That creates risk for ratepayers here in Montana.”
The Energy Strategies report mirrors data on NorthWestern electricity rates prepared by the Montana Consumer Counsel in June 2017. In that analysis, the cost of power generated for the utility at Colstrip was more than double what NorthWestern paid for power produced at the Judith Gap wind farm: $73.85 per MWH from 2016 to 2017, versus $30.64. Hydro energy, which constitutes the largest portion of NorthWestern’s supply portfolio at 37 percent, hovered in the middle at $58.17 per MWH.
The week ended on a promising note for both clean-energy advocates and Colstrip-related infrastructure: On June 29, Gov. Steve Bullock and the Bonneville Power Administration released a development action plan for renewables. Among the recommended actions is to capitalize on the existing transmission system that ties the Colstrip plant to energy markets in Washington and Oregon. The plan states that the gradual closure of Colstrip units will create more transmission space for Montana-based wind energy, and require only minor investment in minimal upgrades compared to the cost of building new lines.
“Once that Colstrip transmission opens up,” Merrill says, “it’s going to be a relatively straightforward process to start moving more renewable power onto that grid, and we’ll be able to export our wind resources to the West Coast markets that are demanding clean energy.”