The Bitterroot Climate Action Group hosted a Zoom meeting last week featuring a presentation on climate change and the efforts to transition from fossil fuel sources to renewable energy sources like solar, wind and water. In her presentation, Ann Hedges, Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs at the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), discussed Montana’s fossil fuel-based energy grid and how a transfer to renewable energy sources is not only possible, but could also lead to cheaper electricity for Montana and the region.
Other states in the region, including the neighboring states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho who are tied to coal burning facilities in Colstrip, Montana by a major transmission line, have all adopted policies aimed at weaning their residents from fossil fuel generated electricity at some future date.
Montana, on the other hand, under pressure from NorthWestern Energy in particular, seems to be doing everything it can to prolong the use of fossil fuels such as oil and gas for as long as possible and inhibit renewable energy development whenever and wherever it can, according to Hedges. She points to recently proposed legislation that would undermine net metering in Montana (HB 359) and double the current tax rate on property used in some solar energy projects (HB 346). At the same time there is legislation that would lower the tax rate for gas plants that use a little green hydrogen in their process (HB 170), a move which Hedges claims actually allows the energy producers to claim they have reduced the rate of emissions per megawatt of their electricity while maintaining or even increasing their actual total emissions.
She said another proposed bill (SB 245), would allow NorthWestern Energy to overcharge customers for gas plants. Another (SB 176) would keep Colstrip operating as long as the company wants. Another (HB 314) would require the Public Service Commission to only consider the downsides of coal-fired power plant closures. She says that another bill (SB 84) weakens the power of the Montana Consumer Counsel to protect rate payers.
Hedges said that the legislature’s and NorthWestern Energy’s reluctance to accept the decline of the fossil fuel industry and the transition to renewable energy is hard to understand. In the past people argued that renewable energy was too expensive, she said, and that was true. But that is no longer the case, she said. She said the cost of wind and solar energy production in the last decade or so has dropped considerably, while the cost of coal-fired electricity production remains very high. Now even gas-produced electricity is more expensive than renewables.
While small residential roof-top installations of solar power panels remain quite high, costing $151 to $242 per megawatt-hour, making it the most costly form of production, larger commercial and industrial installations cost $75 to $154 megawatts per hour. That is still a little more costly than coal-fired electricity production which is estimated at $66 to $152. Nuclear electricity production, at $118 to $192 per megawatt hour, and electricity produced at gas peaking plants at $150 to $199, are even more expensive than coal. The least costly way to produce electricity now is thin film, utility scale solar installations at $32 to $42 per megawatt hour and wind at $28 to $54 per megawatt hour.
According to Hedges, the trend is clear that the cost of fossil fuel electricity production is staying high while the cheapest form of production, utility scale wind and solar, is trending down.
Michael Howell can be contacted at: [email protected] or (406) 239-4838.
Hedges said that there is currently a $1 billion wind farm proposed to be built just north of Colstrip that is forecast to produce up to 750 megawatts. She said now is not the time to be doubling the tax on new wind installations. She said we should be inviting these companies in and perhaps extending them some tax breaks instead tax hikes. Tax reductions are being proposed for new gas plants.
Two coal-fired plants at Colstrip have already been decommissioned freeing up close to 760 megawatts of capacity on the transmission line that runs from Colstrip through Idaho to Washington and Oregon. The wind farm proposed north of Colstrip could fill that gap. Unfortunately, said Hedges, it appears that NorthWestern Energy has no desire to move into renewables and, along with the legislature, seems bent on minimizing its development.
Right now the company is required to accept electricity being supplied by renewables sources on a 1 for 1 basis. NorthWestern lobbied the legislature to change that exchange ratio to ½ to 1 but was rebuffed. Then they went before the Public Service Commission and asked them to allow it and they refused. Now, according to Hedges, the company is back at the legislature arguing once again for the change. She said that doesn’t make sense when the bulk of their customers, in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho have all adopted policies aimed at phasing out all fossil fuel produced energy within a couple of decades. The company and legislature, she said, seem to be looking at making commitments to fossil fuel production that will last far longer than their customer base is going to allow.
Hedges said it does not make sense to inhibit and create obstacles to renewable energy development in the current scenario. She said they should be encouraging solar, wind and water development, even offering incentives, instead of devising them for the construction of new gas plants while doubling the tax rate on renewables.
Hedges said that it is important for people to let their legislators and the company that they want to use not only the cleanest sources of energy but the cheapest and that seems to be for now and the future, renewable forms of energy. The public is urged to contact their legislators and insist on clean and affordable electricity production. Doing otherwise, she said, not only threatens the whole earth’s environment, but it will also cost us more in terms of our power bills.