About 100 advocates for renewable energy walked through uptown Butte earlier this week, chanting and thrusting signs in the air. Some protesters kept time on wooden blocks, tambourines and drums, as they walked toward the state headquarters of Montana’s largest utility company, NorthWestern Energy.
In March, NorthWestern released what they call their Electricity Supply Resource Procurement Plan. The plan generally outlines the company’s vision for the future and how they plan on getting consumers the energy they need. While it is called a plan, the energy options outlined in it are not promises for the future.
But the groups 350 Missoula, the Montana Environmental Information Center and Northern Plains Resource Council organized the rally to protest a section of the plan that suggests building more capacity to generate electricity by burning natural gas.
MEIC’s Brian Fadie walked among the protesters.
"We want to show NorthWestern Energy that there’s tremendous widespread support for investing in clean energy and energy-efficiency technologies here in Montana. Those technologies are ready to go today to meet our energy needs. NorthWestern’s latest long-term energy plan basically called for all new natural gas-fired power plants to meet Montana’s future energy need. And we see that as basically going down the wrong path," Fadie says.
When the protest march reached NorthWestern Energy’s office, the crowd set up on all four corners of Park and Main streets. Police officers stood by to make sure nothing got out of hand and traffic wasn’t blocked. NorthWestern Energy employees gathered in large second and third floor windows, looking down at the rally.
David Merrill with the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club spoke into a microphone facing the utility company office, and said Montana is on a carbon-fueled sinking ship.
"In this time we must speak up loudly and clearly against carbon aggression. And make no mistake: building new gas plants at this point in history is a very aggressive thing."
Protesters say NorthWestern’s plan outlines 13 new natural gas generators, costing over a billion dollars over the next decade.
Inside NorthWestern Energy’s office, spokesman Butch Larcombe says there may be some confusion about the plan being protested. He says state law requires NorthWestern to send Montana’s utility regulators in the Public Service Commission a plan outlining future electricity needs and how they plan to meet them.
"Where they ask us to outline, based on our crystal ball at the moment, where we could see getting energy from in the future. And that included a number of options, including the possibility of building a natural gas fired plant, somewhere, one maybe, but with no details. No location, no cost, no output, or anything defined like that. Saying that based on the supply of natural gas and its price stability and its reliability that it may be a good option. But we also outlined options in adding to our hydro facilities, which produce clean renewable energy. And we also talked about the pros and cons of more wind and solar on our system."
With coal-fired power declining, NorthWestern’s plan says the region needs to find new ways to produce energy. The first lines of NorthWestern’s supply plan acknowledge the benefit of hydroelectric power generators, which supply efficient, low carbon energy. The plan says that improvements to the hydroelectric system could increase energy capacity of existing dams. But the plan says natural gas is NorthWestern’s preferred resource moving forward to meet energy needs.
It says, in the case of both solar … and wind generation, neither ... was determined to be an alternative to natural gas because they cannot meet energy needs at an affordable costs.
The plan’s overview outlines adding 13 new natural gas combustion engine and turbine units, from 2019-2029. Spokesperson Butch Larcombe says those plans are not sure things. He says NorthWestern is also considering buying additional energy off the market, instead of building new power generators.
"It's a balancing act," Larcombe says, "because we need to provide an affordable resource, and one that we can finance, and one that we can justify to the Montana Public Service Commission that it should be part of what we provide to consumers. You know, we've got a lot of challenges there. And it has to be affordable to the shareholders too. They are the ones taking the financial risk to pay for these generating plants. There is a lot of people to keep happy there, and trying to walk down the middle of all those is a challenge."
Montana’s Public Service Commission is looking over NorthWestern’s plan and will likely give the company feedback before the end of the year. That feedback will not approve or dismiss the plan.
Eric Sell, with the PSC, says NorthWestern sends the commission updates on their energy supply plan every two years, and he says he understands why people are protesting.
"The point is well taken," Sell says. "You want people to be involved, you want people to be interested in how their utility serves them and this is the method they’ve gone about making their voice heard. But we would like people to understand the process, that this plan isn’t set in stone, here’s how NorthWestern is going to move forward over the next 20 years. It's just kind of their proposal or plan, the projections and all that kind of stuff, which of course is subject to change."
Sell says constrains of reliability and cost prevent NorthWestern from getting all its power from renewable sources.
350 Missoula’s Co-Chair Jeff Smith helped organized the rally in Butte this week. He disagrees with NorthWestern’s conclusions about Montana’s energy future, and says it’s worth the cost and effort to transition to more carbon free energy.
"We have the skills. We have the skilled work force. We have the money and we have the technology to be able to do it," Smith says. "It is going tax us. We are going to be really challenged by the effort, but it is worth doing. We could go to a state that is 100 percent renewable energy in 15-20 years. 25 years."
Smith asked the protesters to use the climate as a filter when deciding who to vote for in this year’s elections.
Cars and trucks slowly rolled through the intersection surrounded by protesters in front of NorthWestern Energy. Drivers stopped and watched from their vehicles as they waited for the lights to change, some honked, and the cars all hummed as they drove past the crowded street into other parts of town.