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NorthWestern touts coal, natural gas for record energy demand



Montana – Wind generated more power than coal for 30 hours on NorthWestern Energy’s grid last week, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

EIA data for the same location and period showed coal generation falling to nearly half its capacity for more than five days.

“It very much challenges and undermines the framing that fossil fuels run 24-7 and keep our lights on,” said NASA Climate science writer Karin Kirk and Yale Climate Connections journalist.

Montana had record-cold temperatures over the weekend, and NorthWestern Energy said it could keep the lights and heaters on Wednesday.

The utility monopoly praised personnel and customers and noted fossil fuels’ role in record-high demand in a news statement.

Bird added, “We appreciate the patience of those who were affected by some outages our system experienced and the numerous accolades offered for our crews working around the clock in extreme conditions to keep the lights and heat on.

Kirk and energy analysts commended the utility’s capacity to operate during the Arctic blast, but they said NorthWestern Energy omitted key details about how it handled record demand, and government data paints a more complex picture.

For one, Colstrip was underutilized most of the week. EIA data revealed it reached capacity on Saturday after NorthWestern reported record electricity consumption.

NorthWestern Energy spokesperson Jo Dee Black said Colstrip Unit 4 was down for “scheduled maintenance,” and Unit 3 provided half of the company’s 222 megawatts through a reciprocal agreement.

NorthWestern did not explain the maintenance before press time. NorthWestern didn’t say if it’s common to shut down a plant for so long in winter, but the plant is ancient and has broken down before.

NorthWestern Energy stated in its news statement that holding Avista’s 222-megawatt stake in Colstrip, which it will acquire on Jan. 1, 2026, would have saved it over $18 million in energy market purchases.

“More than five days of consecutive extreme temperatures across Montana illustrates why we need more 24/7, on-demand resources in Montana to serve our Montana customers to reduce the risk to reliable service during extreme weather,” Bird said. “We need more of the same 24/7 generation to keep the Montana grid stable to add even more variable wind and solar generation.”

In Montana, Colstrip, natural gas-fired generation facilities, and hydro generation generated half of the power for consumers, but the firm had to buy power from the energy market to meet more than half of the demand.

NorthWestern stated that “wind and solar generation could not produce much if any, power during the extreme cold”.

Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center agreed wind wasn’t providing much power during the coldest part of the cold spell, but she said there’s more to the tale.

“That should not be the end of the conversation,” Hedges said.

She claimed NorthWestern is in an “infant stage” of energy, using 15- or 20-year-old technology and charging customers.

She added other “grown up” utilities are investing in battery storage facilities that can carry up to 100 hours of electricity, and wind often blows heavily before a storm, as it did last week.

“We could have stored that and used that electricity over the weekend,” Hedges added.

She said NorthWestern isn’t capturing that energy when it’s available or using storage technologies to fulfill demand longer.

“They’re acting like energy is on or off,” she added.

Kyle Unruh of Renewable NorthWest said wind fluctuates, and last week it dropped to almost nil. He said wind generated 350 megawatts for many hours while loads were peaking.

“And if we had more wind on our system, it would have contributed more,” Unruh said.

NorthWestern said it will not invest in wind generation and storage soon. It stated adding wind generation and storage “would be made after projects are identified in a request for proposals.”

Overall, renewable energy use is rising in the U.S.

UCS reported last month that renewables generated more than 22% of the nation’s electricity, nearly twice as much as in 2012.

The gas plant malfunction research states that gas plants are more vulnerable to breakdowns than people think, creating “vulnerability for the power grid and for customers.”

NorthWestern also included its Laurel plant in their news release.

“The 175 megawatt Yellowstone County Generating Station, the natural-gas fired generation plant NorthWestern Energy is completing south of Laurel, would have avoided more than $14 million in energy market purchases during this Arctic blast in Montana,” NorthWestern said.

Kirk noted that a Washington natural gas plant failed during the cold stretch, defying the belief that fossil fuels never fail. She and Hedges claimed utilities buy electricity and the market worked as planned.

Kirk remarked, “Energy is a tradable commodity.” Trading is what makes the grid work. Everyone would be overbuilt otherwise.”

She stated power would be very expensive if everyone had to cover their peaks regularly. Kirk compared the scenario to grumbling over a $600 airline ticket-“If only I owned my airplane.”

Hedges agreed with NorthWestern that Colstrip ensured power last week. But she claimed the complete picture shows the Colstrip plant is outdated and struggling.

“It must be replaced. Let’s discuss what’s next when it breaks down, Hedges said.




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