"A coal-fired powerplant of one's own"

If you buy electricity in Montana, all this is yours.... (c/o Darwinsbulldog on Flickr)

If you buy electricity in Montana, all this is yours.... (c/o Darwinsbulldog on Flickr)

For much of 2008, Northwestern Corporation was embroiled in a heated, fiery debate over the future of a coal-fired power plant, Colstrip 4.    But after a lot of hot air, Montana’s Public Service Commission approved the sale of a plant, which will enable the company to charge higher rates to its Montana electricity customers.  Hopefully that won’t trickle down to the children of Northwestern shareholders in the form of stockings full of coal.

The power plant—or more precisely, a 30% interest in it, was to be sold to either Bicent, another power company—or Montanans, by incorporating the value of the plant into their electricity bills.  It was indeed sold to Montanans for around $400 million, after extensive protests by the Montana Consumer Counsel, a government agency.

The Montana Consumer Counsel (MCC) had been arguing in court proceedings since the summer that:  “NorthWestern’s retail customers have been used as involuntary
financial supporters of Colstrip 4 . . . NorthWestern’s retail customers should not be forced to pay twice, and then pay a premium for, an asset to which they have already made substantial (if heretofore unrecognized) contributions.”

Northwestern had fired back that MCC’s position was “absurd” and said following their advice would “amount to an unconstitutional taking.”  Much of the fire and brimstone was due to an ongoing case of whether Northwestern had violated the law in purchasing the plant.

Either way, the deal is now done.  Montanans, like it or not have a coal-fired power plant of their very own.  And Northwestern Corporation will pocket over $400 million in added electricity rates.

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