Future of `Save Colstrip’ bill in doubt; is it about transmission, too?

Posted at 5:09 PM, Apr 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-23 20:42:31-04

HELENA — The future of the proposal to prolong the life of the Colstrip 4 power plant, by encouraging NorthWestern Energy to buy a larger share of the plant, appeared in doubt Tuesday, as legislative leaders held off on appointing a panel that could resurrect it.

House Speaker Greg Hertz, R-Polson, and Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, told MTN News they’re not sure if a House-Senate conference committee to resolve the issue would be appointed in the final days of the Legislature, which could end as soon as Thursday.

When asked what would determine the outcome, Thomas said it’s not clear whether enough votes exist to support whatever proposal could be negotiated on Colstrip legislation.

Another key legislator — Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who proposed a possible solution late Sunday — also told MTN News that time may be running out on finding agreement to pass a bill.

“People are too painted in their corners,” he said. “I will be surprised if this occurs and I will be disappointed that it did not. Because we could have done well for Montana, had we held a different conversation earlier.”

The Montana House voted last week to kill Senate Bill 331, which originally had guaranteed NorthWestern Energy a $75 million return over 10 years to cover Colstrip operational costs — if the utility was able to acquire an additional 150 megawatts of the plant from an unnamed co-owner, for only $1.

The other owners of Colstrip 3 and 4 are utilities in Oregon and Washington, most of whom have said they want to abandon coal-fired power in the coming years. NorthWestern said it was negotiating with one of the utilities to acquire a larger share of the plant.

Supporters of SB331 said if NorthWestern acquired more of the plant, more low-cost power would be available for the company’s 370,000 Montana electric customers and the life of the plant and hundreds of jobs would be extended.

Two days after the House voted to kill SB331, it voted Thursday to send a separate bill to a conference committee — with the possibility that the measure, House Bill 597, could become a vehicle for a solution on Colstrip. The conference committee, if appointed by House and Senate leaders, could have a possible free reign to amend HB597 and return it to the full House and Senate for a final vote.

Gov. Steve Bullock, who said he had problems with SB331, also told reporters on Thursday that he was having discussions with supporters of the measure to see if a compromise could be found. He provided no details on what he might support or what was being proposed.

By Tuesday, however, the conference committee had not been appointed.

Supporters of SB331 also have been saying the Legislature should do what it can to help NorthWestern Energy acquire a larger share of the 500-kilovolt power lines that run from Colstrip to Townsend and have been described as a “backbone” of the electrical grid in Montana. They have suggested that NorthWestern can’t pick up a larger share of the power lines without acquiring a bigger share of the Colstrip power plant.

“It’s much more likely to benefit Montana ratepayers by providing them access to electricity at affordable prices if it’s Montana controlled,” Jones said of the power line. “And, to Montana energy producers in providing a pathway to power that’s both reliable and consistent, to the West Coast.”

On Sunday night, Jones distributed an op-ed piece that reiterated the importance of the power line — and proposed that a version of SB331 be resurrected, with additional assurances from NorthWestern to pursue more renewable power and protect ratepayers from additional costs at Colstrip.

Opponents of SB331 say the power-line argument is a red herring, and that nothing is preventing NorthWestern from buying a larger share of the lines — unless the other utility owners don’t want to sell it.

“There has been no verification that any other transmission owner at Colstrip is interested in getting rid of its transmission capacity,” said Jeff Fox of Renewable Northwest, a group that represents renewable-power producers. “And it’s very unlikely that they would like to. Transmission is very important as utilities across the Northwest move to greater and greater amounts of renewable energy utilization.”

Fox noted that the contract among the lines’ co-owners says if any one of them decides to sell a share, it must offer it first to the other owners.

“There is no threat that this line could be sold out from NorthWestern Energy,” he said.

Jones, however, argued that the other owners could sell portions of the line to those other West Coast owners — and that it would be better for Montana if NorthWestern was assured of controlling more of the line.

Puget Sound Energy, one of the largest owners of Colstrip 4, did not respond to inquiries about whether it wanted to sell its share of the power lines.