Washington state should be proud of its national leadership in moving away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. Washingtonians have committed to move to 100% clean electricity by 2045, and the state’s largest utility, Puget Sound Energy, announced it will be retiring part of its Eastern Montana coal plant at the end of this year.
But what replaces that dirty coal energy — and where it’s built — matters a great deal, both to Washington’s ability to rid its electricity grid of fossil fuels, as well as the economic future of my home state — Montana.
Montana has quite literally powered Washington’s economic rise for decades, starting in 1975 with Puget Sound Energy’s investment in the massive Colstrip power plant outside Billings. This single plant provided more than 20% of the utility’s electricity ever since, helping to power industries like Boeing and Microsoft. The plant also has employed hundreds of people in an area of Montana where good jobs can be hard to come by.
But Colstrip electricity came with costs, as well. Coal power is a massive contributor to climate change; every year, Colstrip emits the carbon pollution equivalent of 3 million cars on the road, contributing to the wildfire smoke choking our summer skies. In the town of Colstrip, shortsighted plans for disposing of coal ash — the toxic byproduct of coal burning — have ruined the aquifer of the town of 2,300 to the point where drinking water must be piped in from a river 30 miles away. Cleaning up this toxic legacy will take decades and cost hundreds of millions — costs that PSE deserves credit for already accounting for.
We recently learned that rising costs at the plant would force PSE to close the two oldest boilers at Colstrip by the end of this year, more than two years earlier than previously anticipated. That’s good news for the Pacific Northwest, hastening the transition to clean power. It is also an unmistakable marker of the continuing decline of coal power, happening because of both economic realities and the need to address climate change.
But here in Montana, the news is a bit more complicated. Colstrip is a significant part of our state’s economy and the primary employer of the town’s residents. While the plant’s operator has promised that employees at the older units will be transitioned into other work at the plant, the community fears that full closure of the plant could mean a significant loss of jobs and tax revenue.
Fortunately, there is a win-win solution for both Washington and Montana, and it starts with Washington state’s largest utilities — PSE and Spokane-based Avista. Both are weighing options for replacing increasingly expensive Colstrip power. PSE recently received dozens of proposals from across the West for new sources of electricity, including new wind and solar projects, some of which would be paired with battery energy storage to provide power on demand.
Several of the prospective wind projects are located in Montana. These projects would utilize the same system of power lines that currently bring electricity from Colstrip to Washington, while adding hundreds of construction jobs and providing millions in added tax revenue to local communities. Seeing one or more of these projects built would be welcome news to Montanans worried about the economic impact of the move away from coal.
In addition to the local job benefits, Montana’s wind is the perfect complement to Washington’s current electricity mix. Our wind blows hardest in the winter, which happens to be exactly when Northwest hydro power is at its lowest and Washington’s electricity demand is at its peak. As Washington works to meet its 100% clean electricity goal, there is value in seeking power from geographically diverse sources — when the wind slows down in the Columbia Basin, it’s often just picking up in eastern Montana.
Montana has the clean energy that Washington needs. Washington’s utilities should make sure that a toxic coal plant and a ruined aquifer aren’t the last investment that they make in Montana.