NorthWestern Energy released a plan Tuesday to more than double how much power it can generate for Montana customers during peak demand, but critics worry the company will rely too much on fossil fuels and not enough on renewable resources to complete the expansion.
Montana's largest electricity supplier aims to add 800 megawatts of power generation capacity between 2022 and 2025, according to the draft plan that went out for public review on Tuesday. The company now has 755 megawatts of "peaking capacity" – energy available during the periods of highest demand – and it purchases an additional 645 megawatts on the market to meet the total peak demand.
The company's plan says NorthWestern will solicit competitive bids from a wide variety of technologies to build out the new power, but it particularly highlights natural gas as cheap and reliable compared to renewable resources like wind and solar power.
The expansion would cost $523 million more using only carbon-free resources such as wind and solar compared to gas alone, the plan said. And moving to a 100 percent carbon-free portfolio – with no gas or coal plants owned by the company – "would be cost prohibitive," it says.
On the other hand, "natural gas resources provide the lowest cost portfolio," the plan says.
Brian Fadie, the clean energy program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said he has yet to review the full plan. However, he said he is concerned that company officials have already made up their minds to go with natural gas, and that renewable resources won't get a fair look.
"The company seems to have predetermined what it wants to do," he said.
The draft plan also says the company also will consider "opportunity resources," or existing power generation that becomes available for purchase. A bill is pending before the Montana Legislature that would allow NorthWestern to buy out its co-owners of the coal-fired Colstrip power plant for $1.
The two older units of Colstrip face a July 2022 deadline to shut down under a legal settlement. NorthWestern is a co-owner of the plant's fourth unit, which will keep running even as its Washington- and Oregon-based co-owners explore reducing or eliminating coal power in their own power generation portfolios.
NorthWestern CEO Bob Rowe said in an opinion article published Monday by the Great Falls Tribune that the company would seek to buy an additional 150 megawatts from Colstrip if the Montana bill passes. The company now owns 222 megawatts from the plant.
"Our customers depend on this vital source of always-available electricity when, like this winter, demand is high," Rowe wrote.
Fadie said the pending legislation is a bad bill that would take away the state Public Service Commission's ability to prevent the company from passing along all costs to their customers.
NorthWestern's plan goes to the Public Service Commission after the 60-day comment period.