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Montana’s largest utility diversifies its energy mix with hydropower


Montana’s largest utility company, NorthWestern Energy, is moving to diversify its energy mix – an increasing trend in the industry. Seeing the regulatory noose tightening on coal, and questioning the long-term promise of natural gas, the company recently announced plans to buy Montana’s 11 hydroelectric dams from their Pennsylvanian owners. By adding 630 megawatts of stable hydro to a portfolio of wind, coal and natural gas, NorthWestern is fortifying itself for a future when energy prices could be higher and more volatile.

Pennsylvania Power and Light Montana (PPL) currently owns Montana’s hydro dams and a share of its largest coal-fired power plant. But PPL is pulling out of the state, and Montana’s electricity provider is using the opportunity to build its power generating capacity, rather than buying energy on the open market from out-of-state companies.

Kerr Dam on Montana's Flathead Reservation is one of 11 dams that NorthWestern Energy plans to buy in 2014. Photo by Sarah Jane Keller.

The lead-up to this new development goes back to 1997, when Montana began its ongoing experiment with utility deregulation, which promised consumers more choices and lower rates. But switching from state controlled electric rates, to power purchased on the open market actually led to higher bills for Montanans. It also killed the state’s utility, Montana Power Company, which sold its 11 hydroelectric dams and some of its coal-fired power plants to PPL, and its utility to South Dakota-based NorthWestern. Montana Power finally went bankrupt trying to become a fiber-optics company.

Now, the results of the deregulation experiment are in. With low energy prices, it’s too hard for a power dealer like PPL to turn a profit in Montana, so the company is seeking refuge in regulated states. NorthWestern is reassembling ownership of Montana’s utility infrastructure, building something more similar to the stable monopoly that Montana Power Company once was.

But NorthWestern isn’t taking full ownership in the state’s coal-fired power plants. They will maintain their stake in Montana’s Colstrip 4 power plant outside Billings, which it shares with PPL and several other companies. With hydro in the mix, NorthWestern doesn't appear interested in helping PPL dump their shares of Montana’s coal-fired power plants. Meanwhile, PPL is mothballing a separate coal-fired power plant near Billings in 2015.

It’s another example of a company saying “no thanks” to more coal – an increasingly common story in the West as even mining companies decline to bid on new public lands coal leases (a first in Wyoming), coal-fired power plants head for the dust bin, and utilities look to diversify their energy portfolios.

The $900 million dam deal, if regulators approve it in 2014, could lead to an initial five percent rate increase for Montanans, but more long-term rate stability, NorthWestern’s President and CEO Bob Rowe told the Missoulian. With half of its generating capacity in wind and hydro, NorthWestern will be less vulnerable to “fuel risk” and “environmental risk,” he said.

In other words, if natural gas is cheap now, there’s a chance that it may not be in the future. The "environmental risk" Rowe's referring to is the tightening regulations on coal-fired power plants, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recently proposed carbon dioxide emissions rules for new power plants. New coal-fired power plants would need expensive carbon capture and storage technology to meet the emissions limits (and rules for old plants could be on the way).

NorthWestern’s decision is a positive development for the state, according to Pat Smith, a Montana representative of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. “The one thing we know about the energy future is that it could change, and it could change pretty drastically on short notice,” he said. “(Hydropower is) a clean resource, it’s a low cost resource, and it’s a dependable resource for the future.” (Assuming the water their is still enough water to pass through the turbines, which is more of a worry in the Colorado River Basin than in Montana.)

NorthWestern isn’t the only Montana company that sees a bright future with hydro. In 2010, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in northwestern Montana formed Energy Keepers, Inc. to purchase and operate PPL’s hydro dam at the outflow of Flathead Lake.

The tribes have been trying to gain control of it since it was built on their land against their will in 1938. They’ll be able to buy it in 2015 when the dam’s license is up for renewal, making them the only U.S. tribe to own and operate a hydro dam.

Considering Rowe recently described the dams as the “absolute ideal resource” for Montana, if anything, NorthWestern’s decision is a sign that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are on the right track by operating their own hydro plant. There could be plenty of buyers for the power generated by Kerr Dam, if other regional utilities are thinking like NorthWestern.

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News editorial fellow.