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Could Colstrip Bill Hinder MT's Renewable-Energy Future?

The coal-fired power plant in Colstrip supplies energy for West Coast utility companies and is scheduled to close by 2022. (Spot Us/Flickr)
The coal-fired power plant in Colstrip supplies energy for West Coast utility companies and is scheduled to close by 2022. (Spot Us/Flickr)
March 24, 2017

HELENA, Mont. - A bill that would require utility companies to pay for closing the Colstrip power plant could come at the cost of future investment in renewable energy, according to critics of the state legislation.

Senate Bill 338 would make Puget Sound Energy and Talen Energy, owners of the two oldest units at the plant, pay for decommissioning and costs to the communities affected. But Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the utilities see this as punitive, which could hinder renewable-energy development in Montana for West Coast markets.

"Every other utility on the West Coast is going to be hesitant about doing business in Montana when we put up a barrier," she said, "when we say, 'When your business is no longer economic, we're going to charge you tens of millions of dollars to leave the state.' That sends the wrong message."

Supporters of the bill have said it holds the plant owners accountable and provides funds to help retrain Colstrip workers who lose their jobs. It's now in the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

Hedges said opposing the bill puts her organization in a rare alliance with the Montana Chamber of Commerce and Montana Taxpayers Association. She said her group is convinced that Montana's future is in renewables, especially wind.

"Our wind blows in the winter, when West Coast states have the highest demand for electricity," she said. "Our wind profile fits their needs perfectly, far better than their own wind profiles. So, it's really natural for them to look to Montana to replace Colstrip to fit their peak energy demand."

Mike Scott, a senior organizer for the Sierra Club in Montana, said it supports a transition package for Colstrip, including helping displaced workers. However, he added, he believes this bill goes too far in punishing the utility companies without addressing cleanup. Talen Energy has said it's losing $30 million a year operating the plant, which could mean closing up shop before the agreed-upon 2022 retirement date. Scott said that complicates what is expected to be a very costly cleanup process.

"If they declare bankruptcy," he said, "the question we're asking is, 'Are we stuck with the bill?' Now, this legislation doesn't do anything to address that, which is another large concern of ours."

Scott said he thinks the Legislature should establish some bonding guarantee for cleanup costs at Colstrip.

The text of SB 338 is online at laws.leg.mt.gov.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT