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The End for Export Power

The Montana Legislature adjourned late last week after a grueling four months away from homes, families and professions. And considering the level of outright warfare in Washington, D.C., these days our legislators conducted themselves with civility. There will be plenty of coverage and spin on the wins and losses of the session, but one issue in particular, the “save Colstrip” effort — which failed — merits discussion as to the actual future of export power.

The “save Colstrip” bills were intended to allow NorthWestern Energy to buy increased ownership in Colstrip for the bargain-basement price of one dollar. But the deal would have also off-loaded hundreds of millions of dollars on Montana’s utility consumers for costs associated with running, upgrading, closing and remediating the antiquated coal-fired power plants. Moreover, it would have removed the oversight and regulation of the Montana Public Service Commission in determining whether the additional utility costs would have been prudent to pass on to consumers. And unfortunately, the open vote-trading/hostage-taking by the Senate’s Colstrip proponents provided the most unethical conduct of the session.

While the motivation for trying to preserve the jobs and revenue from the Colstrip complex could be justified by those who live and work at the power plant or the nearby coal mines, what was not justifiable was the vast increase in utility costs for 370,000 customers to “save” a couple thousand jobs at Colstrip. Indeed, while centralized energy production facilities and “mine mouth” coal-fired generation plants like Colstrip were all the rage when they were built in the mid-70s, the utility landscape has changed considerably nearly 50 years later.

A serious warning about the perils of betting on the export power market can be found in an article in the Pacific Standard that chronicles the tribulations of building the world’s biggest on-shore wind farm. Billionaire Philip Anschutz plans to install 1,000 of the largest wind turbines in existence on his 500-square-mile Wyoming ranch to produce more than 3,000 megawatts of electricity (enough to power Los Angeles and San Francisco) and sell the cheap wind power for premium prices in the California “green energy” market. In addition to determining the project’s impacts on wildlife such as sage grouse, eagles and antelope, it requires building a 700-mile transmission line from Wyoming to the California through federal, state and private property.

However, the most salient issue in relation to Montana’s energy production asks: “Will the energy marketplace in, say, 2022, even need this resource from the Power Company of Wyoming? In the decade since Miller first had the idea of converting the cattle ranch into a wind farm, California’s electricity market has changed considerably. Across the state, tens of thousands of rooftops are now decked out with solar panels. Turbines have sprung up on the slopes of the Tehachapi Mountains. Though few ever imagined it possible a decade ago, California already procures as much as 25 percent of its power from renewable sources.”

Indeed, as the head of California’s Public Utility Commission said: “On sunny days the state is already overproducing electricity,” concluding Anschutz’s project “doesn’t fit the modern world… but they hear what they want to hear.”

That’s prudent advice for those seeking to export Montana’s power — green or not. Instead of hearing “what they want to hear,” they should heed the Anschutz spokesman’s warning that: “The market is without a doubt the biggest risk.” And as the article concludes: “They are now looking for energy customers in Nevada, or wherever else he can find a buyer.” But “so far he hasn’t signed any.”