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Time to hold NorthWestern, elected officials accountable

by Monica Tranel
| January 28, 2024 12:00 AM

Two notable events just occurred in Montana: the Public Service Commission’s blessing of NorthWestern Corporation’s 28% rate hike; and extreme cold.

28% rate hike

The all-Republican Commission approved a 28% rate hike, the majority of which falls on small businesses and residential users — renters and homeowners. The commission rejected a challenge to that rate hike, forcing Montanans to gift Wall Street $3,447,870 every year.

How did this happen? Montanans’ monthly bills are based on a pretend cost of debt for Colstrip of 6.5%. In fact, NorthWestern’s actual cost of debt is about 4%, forcing Montanans to pay what amounts to a $3,444,870 annual gift to Wall Street.

Do you like NorthWestern’s billboards touting “renewable energy”? You’re paying for them, too, even while NorthWestern claims renewable energy doesn’t work and we’ll all freeze to death if we rely on it.

To summarize: Montanans pay for NorthWestern’s profit on the Colstrip coal plant whether it runs or not, which NorthWestern justifies by telling us renewable energy doesn’t work. We then pay NorthWestern to advertise to us about its renewable portfolio, to make its executives feel better about themselves because they don’t want to be perceived as a dirty utility. 

Montanans don’t want to pay millions of dollars to soothe Wall Street egos.

The cold snap

NorthWestern claims that Colstrip is essential to keeping us all from freezing to death. Northwestern now claims that had it just been operating the Yellowstone Gas Plant during the cold snap it would not have had to buy power from other utilities — at great cost to Montanans. But nowhere does NorthWestern show us a head-to-head comparison of costs for power from the grid as compared to the cost to Montanans of paying for power that is owned by Wall Street. 

At the end of the day, NorthWestern’s motive is money. The bigger the kingdom, the bigger the king. NorthWestern makes a lot of money off of plants that it owns and operates — whether they are running or not. When Colstrip isn’t generating power — and in January, it was not generating power at full capacity — we still pay NorthWestern’s Wall Street owners the full cost of owning the plant plus a profit on the plant.

This is where the all-Republican PSC is failing Montanans. What business owner in Montana pays full price — plus a hefty profit to the seller — for half the product? 

NorthWestern claims that Colstrip was down for “scheduled maintenance.” Pretty hard to justify owning and operating a coal plant for the cold weather and schedule maintenance during January.

Most troubling of all is the total failure of our elected officials to do their jobs. NorthWestern’s corporate PAC contributes to Rep. Ryan Zinke’s campaign while he voted to cut funding for low-income heating assistance by more than 75%.

If our elected officials won’t hold NorthWestern accountable, let’s hold our elected officials accountable. Let’s vote for people who will work for the people, and put the interests of our communities above profits for monopoly corporations. 

Monica Tranel is an attorney and candidate for Montana’s western District for U.S. Congress.