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Bozeman Daily Chronicle
May 1, 2012

Guest column by Renewable NW's Jeff Fox: "NorthWestern Energy’s supply plan and Montana’s energy future"

Every two years, NorthWestern Energy, the electricity supplier for most Bozeman-area residents, submits a Supply Procurement Plan to the Montana Public Service Commission. The plan provides a snapshot of the energy resources the utility currently uses, as well as a 20-year outlook on the utility’s future plans and operating conditions.

If you care about consumer rates, reliable service, and the health of your community and environment, the plan is an important indicator of what you can expect from your electricity provider.

Taken as a whole, the plan should give ratepayers confidence that NorthWestern is on track to fulfill its vision and mission statements of “enriching lives through a safe, sustainable energy future” by “working together to deliver safe, reliable and innovative energy solutions.” Still, as with any plan, there are opportunities for improvements, as well as parts that deserve special praise. Below are a few noteworthy aspects.

NorthWestern should be praised for being on track to meet Montana’s Renewable Energy Standard by ensuring that at least 15 percent of the energy consumed by its customers comes from renewable resources by 2015. Of note, these renewable resources include NorthWestern’s first wholly owned wind project, expected to be in service by the end of the year.

Unfortunately for ratepayers, NorthWestern’s plan fails to consider the additional long-term economic benefits that could be gained by acquiring more than 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources. The omission is glaring because NorthWestern’s own real-world experience, and some of its modeling in the plan, shows that wind energy is among the lowest cost, lowest risk resources available.

For a real-world example, look no further than the Judith Gap wind farm. Since 2005, it has provided clean and affordable electricity for NorthWestern’s customers at costs significantly cheaper than coal-fired electricity from Colstrip. But, instead of doing the analysis to explore how more renewable energy could benefit ratepayers, NorthWestern treats the Renewable Energy Standard in the plan as an artificial cap on the amount of renewable energy it will acquire, instead of a minimum benchmark to build upon.


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