Ecology Justice

NorthWestern Energy Fails to Address Climate Crisis

What type of actions are Montana politicians and NorthWestern Energy doing to address this crisis caused by burning fossil fuels? The completely wrong types of actions.

In May, the Earth set a new World’s Record! Unfortunately, it is not the type of record we want to have. Atmospheric carbon dioxide set the new record at 415 ppm; this is the Earth’s highest level in the atmosphere since 3 million years ago. What type of actions are Montana politicians and NorthWestern Energy doing to address this crisis caused by burning fossil fuels? The completely wrong types of actions. NorthWestern Energy tried to exploit the Montana taxpayers and have those taxpayers pay for NorthWestern costs involved with maintaining the Colstrip Power Plant. Fortunately, the Montana Legislature declined NorthWestern’s request to generate power based on coal. State Senator Steve Daines, however, thinks to continue to burn coal is a great answer to the problem of our climate crisis. Daines, the Department of Energy and the owners of Colstrip Power Plant are seeking federal aid to frack Colstrip pollution into an oil field in South Eastern Montana to increase production. Daines is also co-sponsoring a bill called Enhancing Fossil Fuel Energy Carbon Technology Act to direct the D.O.E. to make more carbon investments with carbon capture and sequestration projects. These projects are popular with Bullock and Gianforte, as well.

Not only do they want federal aid, Daines also co-sponsored another bill that wants the IRS to continue to give tax credit subsidies for refined coal conditioned to reduce pollutants. This technology is extremely expensive and has had only a small amount of application at industrial scale. Moreover, according to an article in the New York Times, this tax credit costs taxpayers $10 billion at current corporate levels. Wall Street is making huge profits in tax credits each year for pollution reductions that do not even come close to the standards in the real world. We as taxpayers are getting hosed, our air quality continues to worsen, as does American’s health, and we continue to increase the burning of the Earth.

The irony here is that Talen Energy (Pennsylvania) and Puget Sound Energy, two owners of the Colstrip Power Plant, just recently made plans to close the two older units 1 and 2 by the end of 2019 because coal fired electricity is more expensive now than wind and solar. The companies are involved in an air pollution lawsuit. Puget Sound Energy also feels that the 35 to 40 year-old units 3 and 4 are no longer a sound investment for their consumers money since the time is short for these units to remain useful. By 2025 the State of Washington requires, by law, the cessation of all delivery of coal fired electricity.

So now that we know coal fired energy is more expensive than wind and solar, what is NorthWestern energy doing as they bombard us with public relations commercials claiming that 60 percent of the power they deliver to Montana customers is renewable energy? They are asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a $40 million dollar rate increase to cover their costs of using their transmission lines. This would mean an average 52.8 percent increase for NorthWestern business customers which includes the power sucking Bitcoin mining company Crypto Watt Mining. They are asking the Montana Public Service Commission for a $6.5 million increase for the 300,000 Montana residential customers.

Moreover, the cheaper renewable energy businesses in Montana would like to meet the demand of power the closing of Units 1 and 2 of the Colstrip Power Plant would create. Of course, NorthWestern Energy and the aforementioned Montanan politicians do not encourage this. Northwestern Energy wants to cripple the growing solar power companies in the the state further by adding a new charge to Montana homeowners who install solar panels on their rooftops in the immediate future. They also want to reduce the credit Montanans receive for surplus power from 11.4 cents per kilowatt hour to about 6.6 percent. They want Solar Energy customers to pay more grid costs. Currently these customers pay about 65 percent of their service costs.

Berkeley Pit, Butte. Contaminated land and Federal Superfund site. (credit: GrabADonut)

Compare NorthWestern Energy’s policy to California’s Net Energy Metering where a special billing arrangement that provides credit to customers with solar PV systems for the full retail value of the electricity their system generates. These customer pay only for the net amount of electricity used from the utility owner in addition to monthly customer transmission distribution and meter service charges they incur. Excess power generated by solar customers runs the meter backwards to credit the customers account.

NorthWestern Energy should instead encourage its Montana customers to install solar and wind energy systems and not penalize them with higher bills and cheaper credits. The company should request tax credits and a modest rate increase to convert the Colstrip units to produce solar panels and wind and water turbines to reach a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2022. Moreover, Daines, Bullock, and Gianforte need to encourage the production of renewable energy in Montana, not to continue propping up an old, dying, and polluting means of power. Montanans must elect politicians who encourage the renewable energy industry in this state and not take fossil fuel industry campaign money. We must elect new politicians who are committed to eliminating the burning of fossil fuels.

Finally, in hurricane-Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, it was only the localized solar micro grids that survived Maria’s wrath and were able to provide electricity to their residents; the large macro grid was completely destroyed. Here in the West, storm downed power lines have started large wildfires. In California, recently, the utility had to turn off power to its customers in fear of downed power lines starting a wildfire. In forested Western Montana many of our transmission lines are vulnerable to storms and when they fall they can also spark wildfires. We need to get away from the massive macro electric power grid philosophy with its long and vulnerable transmission lines and create local micro grids. Missoula bought back its water, now it needs to encourage and create micro grids from local businesses and residents who install solar and wind power on their rooftops to create our own electric grid and only utilize NorthWestern’s grid when needed.

Dave Ashworth

By Dave Ashworth

Dave has been a Montana resident for over 35 years, has a BA in English from the University of Utah and a Masters in Literacy from Leslie University. He is a retired educator who taught courses in English, Environmental Issues, Environmental Issues and Action at a local high School for 33 years.

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