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Environmental group blasts NorthWestern Energy's new Colstrip deal

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Posted at 7:06 PM, Jan 17, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-18 11:20:04-05

NorthWestern Energy’s Monday announcement that it has reached an agreement with Avista Corp. to acquire larger ownership of Colstrip Units 3 and 4 was cause for celebration for many in Montana, but not everyone is thrilled.

“This is a terrible idea for NorthWestern’s hundreds of thousands of customers who are already paying higher utility rates because of the Colstrip plant,” Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said Tuesday.

Hedges warns that it could lead to Montanans paying some of the highest electricity rates in the region.

“NorthWestern is already asking for a 25 percent increase for its generating station outside Laurel—a gas plant. And now they are going to saddle us, or at least try to saddle us, with the cost for the operation and maintenance and fuel for a really old plant that is subject to very expensive breakdowns. This is definitely a buyer beware situation,” Hedges says.

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Anne Hedges

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte issued a statement in support of the deal, saying “Montana needs Colstrip. We saw firsthand in December when we had record and near-record lows throughout the state, and we needed Colstrip to keep our lights and our heat on.”

NorthWestern said, in announcing the deal, that if this incremental share of Colstrip and the Yellowstone County generating station had been available during frigid temperatures last month that it would have saved customers millions of dollars in energy costs procured from out-of-state providers.

Hedges accuses NorthWestern of using fear tactics to make a lot of money for shareholders on the back of customers, saying that testimony in its rate case shows that NorthWestern’s own analysis shows it has plenty of energy and capacity for many years to come.

“Other utilities are looking to all different sorts of storage technologies to balance out wind and solar, and they have this wonderful hydroelectric system that can do the same. So, NorthWestern is feeding everybody a line when it says the lights are going to go out," Hedges says.

Hedges says that if NorthWestern is granted the 25 percent increase for electricity that it is currently seeking from the state's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, then Montanans will be paying some of the highest rates in the region.

“And now on top of that, NorthWestern wants to add to our rates by buying a bigger share of a coal plant that it doesn’t need and that we know has a tendency to break down. It’s simply getting older. It’s like buying a 40-year-old car and expecting it to run perfectly,” says Hedges.

“Instead of taking the lead and entering the modern energy age and looking to lower costs, Northwestern is doubling down on a resource from last century,” she says.