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NorthWestern Energy presents new Integrated Resource Plan

NorthWestern Energy Integrated Resource Plan
NorthWestern Energy
Posted at 6:51 PM, Aug 10, 2023

HELENA — Montana regulators are taking public input on a new plan from NorthWestern Energy, laying out how the utility plans to meet the state’s energy needs over the next 20 years.

In May, NorthWestern submitted its 2023 Integrated Resource Plan. The company is required to put together a similar plan every three years.

John Hines, NorthWestern’s vice president of supply and Montana government affairs, said the company is focused on maintaining and improving reliability in electrical service for their customers in Montana, and the plan will help them do that.

“It's a very high-level look and it defines what our needs are,” he said.

Hines says it’s becoming harder for NorthWestern to meet the demand for electricity during extreme weather with its current generating resources – forcing them to buy power on the open market to close the gap.

“What's changing is the lack of resources during those critical weather events,” he said. “We are not able to go out to the market as easily. It's much, much, much more expensive when we do go out.”

He said the company is taking steps to increase its capacity, including acquiring a larger stake in the energy from the coal-fired power plant in Colstrip and building the Yellowstone County Generating Station, a natural-gas-fired plant currently under construction near Laurel.

The Integrated Resource Plan includes modeling of how various different types of generating resources might perform over the coming years.

“The modeling suggests that the best-fit resources to address our portfolio’s needs are flexible natural gas generation and energy storage (pumped hydro),” it reads. ‘These resources are best suited to address the characteristics of our portfolio generally being energy long and capacity short. The economics and longer duration characteristics of these resources were selected over short-duration resources like batteries.”

The Montana Public Service Commission is holding a series of public hearings on the Integrated Resource Plan:

· Monday, Aug. 14, 6 p.m., at the Great Falls Civic Center, 2 Park Drive S
· Tuesday, Aug. 15, 12 p.m., at the PSC offices, 1701 Prospect Ave. in Helena
· Wednesday, Aug. 16, 6 p.m., at the Board of Oil & Gas Conservation headquarters, 2535 St. Johns Ave. in Billings
· Thursday, Aug. 17, 6 p.m., at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, 17 W. Quartz St.
· Tuesday, Aug. 22, 6 p.m., at the Missoula College Learning Center, 1205 E. Broadway St.

You can also submit written public comment to the PSC through Aug. 28, by mail to 1701 Prospect Ave., P.O. Box 202601, Helena, MT 59620-2601, or by email to pschelp@mt.gov.

NorthWestern Energy

Some environmental groups, like the Montana Environmental Information Center, are already raising concerns about the plan – and encouraging members of the public to weigh in.

“It's a great opportunity for people to let the PSC know that we're paying attention and we know that clean, renewable energy investments are going to save customers money – and are going to reduce our pollution that we experience in the state as well,” said Cari Kimball, MEIC’s executive director.

The groups said the plan continued to put emphasis on coal- and gas-fired power production rather than renewable energy sources, and they claimed NorthWestern hadn’t taken into account the substantial funding the Biden administration has made available for renewable development or the potential administrative costs that could be added to coal and gas plants if new pollution standards take effect.

Kimball said MEIC believes NorthWestern is overestimating the reliability of production using fuels like gas and underestimating renewable energy. She said battery technology is improving significantly, and Montana is in a strong position to develop renewables like wind energy.

“We deserve investments in renewables, not reliance on last century's technology,” she said.

Hines said NorthWestern did take renewable energy subsidies into account in their plan, and the cost to deliver the same amount of megawatts remained significantly higher. He said the decisions they’ve made have been with customers in mind.

Hines also said the plan does not actually determine what generating resources NorthWestern will pursue in the future. He said they will hold competitive bids, open to all types of resources.

“We have an independent third party that evaluates those resources, selects those resources, and it's what is chosen to best suit our needs,” he said.

Hines said, when the company approved a bid for the Laurel gas plant, they also selected a battery project outside Billings. However, he said they didn’t execute that project because the state’s “pre-approval” law – which allows a utility to ask the PSC to approve the costs of a new supply resource before acquiring it – was invalidated by a court decision at that time. He said large-scale battery technology remains unproven in Montana, and NorthWestern was concerned about pursuing a $100 million battery project without the PSC signing off beforehand.