Bill to encourage NW Energy to buy more Colstrip power gets new life

Posted at 4:47 PM, Mar 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-13 21:02:03-04

HELENA — A bill designed to help NorthWestern Energy buy part of a Colstrip power plant — and perhaps extend the life of the plant — got a new life of its own Wednesday at the Legislature.

Republican state Sen. Tom Richmond of Billings, the sponsor of the original bill, had a committee kill it Wednesday morning, in the face of criticism that it was a “blank check” for NorthWestern to charge consumers for Colstrip power for years to come, regardless of whether it’s needed.

But hours later, Richmond introduced a modified replacement, which he said places some limits on what NorthWestern can charge — if the utility buys the power from a yet-to-be-identified seller.

“In order to accomplish the changes that I thought were needed, we thought we were better off starting with a new bill,” he told MTN News after introducing Senate Bill 331.

Critics of the original measure, Senate Bill 278, aren’t impressed.

Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center said SB331 still guarantees revenue for NorthWestern if it buys the power, even if cheaper alternatives may be available for its customers.

“They did a couple of little tweaks around the edges, but it’s the same as the old bill,” she said. “Meet the new boss — same as the old boss.”

NorthWestern Energy officials have said they’re discussing whether to buy 150 megawatts of power that would be produced by Colstrip 4. They haven’t identified the seller, but the other owners of Colstrip are primarily utilities in Washington and Oregon that want to abandon coal-fired power.

NorthWestern would buy the power strip for $1, so it wouldn’t have any purchase price to recover from ratepayers. But Richmond’s original bill said if NorthWestern bought any of the Colstrip power for $1, it could then charge its ratepaying customers for all other costs associated with producing the power and running the plant — without review by reguators.

The new bill still says NorthWestern gets to recover those costs, but limits them to $40 million over five years and says they can apply only up to 150 megawatts.

SB331 also says if a Colstrip plant shuts down before its expected life cycle, a utility owner’s “undepreciated investment” and any “decommissioning and site-remediation costs” must be included in customer rates, over time.

Richmond said he didn’t think that language is a significant change.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, a co-sponsor of the bill, said he thinks the Colstrip power and associated high-voltage power line are needed and that NorthWestern merely wants some certainty that it can recover its costs of operating the plant, if it completes the deal.

“If we want to continue to have a healthy, robust renewable (energy) portfolio, we need baseload power to back that power up,” he said. “That 500-kilovolt line is also part of that, and that gives us the ability to export renewables as well as import power into the state when needed.”

SB331 has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

Value, future of Colstrip a flashpoint in NorthWestern’s $35 million electric rate-hike request