If pending legislation lets Puget Sound Energy create a fund to pay for closing Montana coal plants, this state’s utility commission has math to do.

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THE task of protecting ratepayers and the broad public interest in power generation, service delivery and environmental safety falls on the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

The UTC’s three commission members and its staff might have some late nights if ESSB 6248 is adopted in the state House of Representatives.

The measure is a product of amendments and substitute bills with layers of concerns and consideration about closing coal plants in Montana and everything that could mean for ratepayers and industry in this state, and the economy of Montana.

The bill “authorizes an electrical company to file a petition with the Utilities and Transportation Commission for approval of an eligible coal unit mitigation plan.” Got that?

Basically the request would let PSE ask the regulatory commission if it can use customer money in a different way. As the Senate staff report explains, “The bill seeks UTC’s approval to apply regulatory assets — tax credits — instead of returning the tax credits to customers over a period of time.”

Specific federal credits and grants would go into a special fund to pay for decommissioning and remediation of the closure of coal plants, not lowering ratepayer bills, as intended. The money, under the new process, would only be used for plant retirement.

The closure of coal plants, if and when that might happen, could not start before January 2023. The task of ending coal by wire — electricity from Montana coal plants — requires a dense mixture of replacement power, expenses, environmental intent, and deadlines and regional economic considerations.

If the legislation survives, it would fall on the UTC to do its job: crunch the numbers — costs and risks — to see if this new process is prudent for ratepayers.