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Climate Crisis Energy Environment Montana Politics

More power to who?

In their latest gambit to maintain powerful sway over Montana’s energy economy and jobs, and most Montana families’ pocketbooks, NorthWestern Energy is attempting to withhold an important stockholder proposal from its spring 2020 shareholder meeting proxy materials.

If included in the proxy, the stockholder proposal, put forth by NorthWestern Energy stockholder Tom Tosdal, would allow shareholders to vote on a resolution that would request that “Northwestern Corporation plan for the Northwestern Energy Company to cease coal fired generation of electricity from the Colstrip plant and replace that electricity with non carbon emitting renewable energy and 21st Century storage technologies with its own assets or from the market no later than the end of the year 2025, and to share that plan with the shareholders no later than the 2021 annual meeting.”

Should the resolution pass, shareholders could protect themselves from future losses due to market forces and the climate crisis, when Colstrip may become a stranded asset. Should the resolution pass it would also save ratepayers from holding the bag to cover those losses. Should the resolution pass, NorthWestern would actually be in an empowered position to lead a renewable energy boom in Montana to the long-term benefit of its shareholders, Montana ratepayers, Colstrip employees and their families, and rural communities around the state in need of economic development and jobs. It would also greatly benefit our future in a shared climate at an affordable cost. Our shared climate  is bursting at the seams with greenhouse gases and consequently trapping more and more heat, disrupting our planet’s natural systems, and putting lives, property, and natural habitat in peril–something none of us can afford (see recent conditions in Indonesia and Australia).

But, instead, NorthWestern’s leadership is attempting to block inclusion of Tosdal’s shareholder resolution, stating, in a letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, that, among other issues, the resolution seeks to micro-manage the company “by probing too deeply into matters of a complex nature upon which shareholders, as a group, would not be in a position to make an informed judgment.” (Full coverage of the issue appeared statewide over the last week.) It’s really amazing to me how little they think of their shareholders. 

NorthWestern’s current leadership and marketing department spend a lot of time and ink talking about how much they care about their employees and how dedicated they are to affordable, reliable power for Montanans. They have even rolled out a fancy new website to “explain” their 2019 Resource Procurement Plan—warning us of looming power shortages and that the only way to avoid them is to accept their plan, and accept the company’s claim that renewables are too expensive by comparison and unreliable to boot. (Note: Public comment on the plan via the PSC closed on Monday.)

As to the feasibility of renewables as they discuss in the Plan, I simply cannot trust their numbers, why would I? The company derives its estimates from a black-box proprietary modeling program that seems only to spit out the answers that support the company’s current business model. As to the reliability issue, it doesn’t take too much work to find other companies confidently embracing renewables plus battery back-up to replace fossil fuels. See Florida Power and Light’s plan to retire two natural gas plants and replace them with solar plus battery. Or, more locally, Idaho Power, which plans to be clean by 2045. 

“Idaho Power unveiled a goal … to provide 100-percent clean energy by 2045. The Clean Today, Cleaner Tomorrow.® effort will build on the company’s 100-year history as a clean-energy leader while providing reliable service at affordable prices.” – From IdahoPower.com.

If a “reliable” power shortage is truly the issue, why is NorthWestern putting all of its eggs in the Colstrip basket? Colstrip has had maintenance issues. As one example, in 2018 it was closed for several months for violating the paltry clean air standards of the Trump administration–costing NorthWestern around $7 million of an extra $23.8 million in market-purchased energy (a cost they are trying to pass onto ratepayers).  

Just before Christmas, with NorthWestern’s input, the current Public Service Commission set terms for four state-of-the-art wind farms to be situated near Rapleje. Complete with battery storage backup, these wind farms would produce 320 MW—incidentally that is half of what NorthWestern claims it needs to make up for its shortage in peak capacity—a claim used to justify its fossil fuel proposal. However, the PSC’s allowance for the project (estimating a net rate of $38.41 a megawatt hour) may essentially kill it, unless the commission reconsiders the terms, which developer Caithness Beaver Creek has requested. Under the terms originally requested by Caithness, the power from these projects would cost Montana ratepayers about 50% less than what we pay for power from Colstrip.  

After reading the Rapleje wind farm story, it really sunk in: Keeping their eggs in the Colstrip basket doesn’t create reliability for us, it creates reliability for them.

NorthWestern calls its fancy new marketing website for its 2019 Resource Procurement Plan, “More Power to You.”  Yet there is nothing empowering about this plan for Montana: not in terms of rates, not in terms of water and air quality, and not in terms of economic development and jobs. Every Montanan should be asking NorthWestern’s leadership, our current Public Service Commission, and the legislators that are supposed to oversee them: “More power to who?” Who is raising rates for Montana families? Who is killing renewable energy jobs in rural communities? 

As a mom, and the person in charge of bills and spending our money wisely, it seems to me that NorthWestern’s goal is to maintain dominance over our pocketbooks, at great expense to us and great profit to them, by controlling how the power is produced, i.e. propping up Colstrip, as opposed to buying power from more affordable renewable-based producers. 

As a state we should be very concerned about reliability, and what scenario would offer true reliability, especially since extreme weather will become more common (a fact NorthWestern states in its 2019 Resource Procurement Plan without any sense of irony) as our planet continues to heat up. By forcing us to invest our money (because we pay our bills) in an unreliable coal plant in disrepair, they create an ongoing revenue source for themselves and, from my perspective, imperil energy reliability in the state by not investing our money in an updated, clean, redundant, more decentralized grid. 

The attempts by the company’s leadership to block an opportunity for shareholders to vote on a serious stockholder resolution that addresses some of these issues reveals how fearful they are of the truth, regardless of how it impacts the rest of us: their ratepayers, their shareholders and employees, and employees’ families. If they weren’t afraid, they would allow a vote.

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

Winona Bateman

Winona Bateman is a concerned Montana voter, founder of Montana group Families for a Livable Climate, wife, and mother to Ellis, who she hopes has a livable future.

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