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NorthWestern Energy’s Big Heist

NorthWestern Energy wants a blank check from its customers. If that sounds expensive to you, you’re right. But once again, the legislature is willing to do the bidding of “The Company.” Senate Bill 331 would allow NorthWestern to purchase an additional share of the Colstrip plant for just $1. Sound like a great deal? Only if you are a NorthWestern Energy shareholder or executive. But for the rest of us plebes, it’s rotten to the core.

That $1 price tag comes with some outrageously expensive strings attached. First, and most importantly, the bill eliminates Public Service Commission (PSC) oversight of the deal. If this purchase is such a good deal, why does NorthWestern need to bypass the one entity in the state charged with protecting NorthWestern’s customers from greedy executives and shareholders? The answer is obvious. It’s a lousy deal for customers.

Normally the PSC reviews such deals to make sure monopoly utilities, such as NorthWestern, don’t gouge their customers. In this case, that’s 370,000 Montanans who are captive customers of NorthWestern. If you pay NorthWestern an electric bill, that means you.

Once NorthWestern pays $1 for more of the Colstrip plant, its customers are on the hook for completely unspecified costs starting at a mere $75 million. NorthWestern could spend the entire $75 million in one year, force its customers to pay a $75 million bill (that’s you), and close the plant the next year. The PSC will have zero oversight unless NorthWestern spends over $75 million on plant upgrades. Currently, NorthWestern spends about $4.7 million each year on upgrades at the plant. This bill incentivizes NorthWestern to increase spending at the plant, which WILL increase your power bill if you are a customer.

But that’s not all. Once NorthWestern “rate bases” the plant for $1 (includes its costs in your rates), it will also be entitled to pass on to its customers all costs for operation, maintenance, remediation (estimated at $700 million), decommissioning, and other costs for that increased share. So that $1 is really $75 million PLUS a whole lot more. But wait, that’s not all. The bill also lets NorthWestern charge its customers for an additional transmission line with no limit on the price tag and no PSC oversight. Do you want your bank account to be a personal piggy bank for NorthWestern? It’s not like you can just stop paying your power bill!

This just passed the Montana Senate and is now on to the Montana House, call your representative today at 406-444-4800 and say no SB 331!

Message your legislator with this easy online form:

What’s truly maddening is that all of this is happening while the price for new renewables and storage projects are being priced at approximately $30 per megawatt hour (and dropping), which is significantly less than the $75 per megawatt that we currently pay for NorthWestern’s existing share of the Colstrip plant. If buying more of the plant is such a good deal, surely the 5 republican coal-loving PSC commissioners would approve an increased ownership – and could do so without SB 331. But NorthWestern doesn’t want to have to go through the PSC for approval.

NorthWestern knows that buying Colstrip and having its shareholders carry all of the risk is a not a good deal. It only wants the deal if its captive customers (that means you), and not its shareholders, carry all the risk. We’ve been down this road before, when current Montana Senator Fred Thomas authored the 1997 electric utility deregulation bill that bankrupted Montana Power and skyrocked everyone’s power bills. Yes, that is the same Fred Thomas who just voted to support this Heist by NorthWestern.

What could you to with your money that NorthWestern wants to turn into its shareholders’ money? Perhaps pay into your kids’ college fund, pay down debt, put a down payment on a home, or pay medical bills. But no. Instead some legislators want to allow NorthWestern to buy a larger share of an aging old coal plant (that every other owner wants get out of because it’s a dinosaur), and YOU are on the hook. You are on the hook for carrying all of the risks and all of the costs while NorthWestern’s stockholders get a sweet deal.

This might sound like a great idea for those who want to run for public office and need a big independent expenditure to boost their chances, but everyone else should be incensed, outraged, and spitting mad.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Nathan Kosted

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