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Recent legislation brought by NorthWestern Energy — the state’s largest public utility — to acquire 150 megawatts of the troubled Colstrip coal power plant was brazen in its attempt to bypass state regulation responsible for protecting rate payers.

Fortunately the bill failed, but not before sowing significant discord, and wasting the precious time and effort of the Montana Legislature, which has a far-more serious responsibility before it:

• Charting paths to new, clean, lower-cost ways to produce and consume the electricity;

• Providing fair and thoughtful Montana solutions for new industry and enterprise in the distressed communities in coal country; and,

• Ensuring a continued role for the treasure state as a net-exporter of electricity to urban centers on the West Coast.

One would expect NorthWestern to lead this state in envisioning the transition to clean energy given that over 60% of its production assets are non-carbon emitting, and its management routinely makes the case for sustainability and clean energy in its public messaging. That role remains within reach for the utility, but – as this past legislative session evidenced – for some reason not convincingly embraced.

The vision going forward has an important backdrop: the current crisis in once-lucrative carbon energy markets that have well-served the treasure state for generations.

At their core, these market disruptions are global in scale, science-based and market driven.

Abundant, low-cost natural gas has virtually bankrupted our national coal industry. And, new, clean wind and solar technologies – distinctive for having no fuel cost – are being paired with flexible, cutting-edge utility-scale energy storage systems offered at contracted delivered prices that compete – or beat – otherwise comparable offers from natural gas production.

Experts tell us to prepare for a day when "renewable-energy-plus-storage" systems will become the primary source of base-load power. Efficiency – doing more with less – will continue as a core value of the new energy future in which increasingly expensive and less environmentally friendly carbon fueled power will be increasingly held in reserve to meet periodic unsatisfied peak demand.

At the center of this new world is a modernized grid — sometimes called a smart grid — that will serve as the state’s future energy marketplace. To its credit, NorthWestern Energy says in the next few years it will take the first step towards a 21st century grid by installing advanced meters in Montana homes and businesses.

For 100 years the grid has been a somewhat clunky, but dependable one-way street: utilities sending us centrally generated power at prices set by state regulators.

Advanced meter infrastructure [AMI] will revolutionize communications between the utility and the consumer, allowing utility managers for the first time to “see” actual house-by-house demand on the grid in real time, and allowing customers more choice in when, and at what price, they consume electric services.

A smart grid will increasingly allow electricity to be purchased and sold based on real-time cost of service.

Imagine a future in which a homeowner instructs their AMI-capable dishwasher to monitor the grid’s changing price of electricity, initiating the wash cycle when prices are low, say in the middle of the night.

The benefits of these so-called time-of-use electricity rates – already available in other parts of the country – are mutual: The consumer saves money, and the utility sells power when demand is slack. Smart meters will allow the grid to operate more efficiently, softening demand spikes, increasing reliability, and lowering utility operating costs – and, thus, consumer bills -- across the system.

The coming modernized grid will also feature a vastly larger operating area.

NorthWestern Energy has just announced plans to join what in engineering-speak is called the Western Energy Imbalance Market – a voluntary association of 38 utilities in the western states committed to sharing grid resources in the wholesale purchase and sale of electricity.

Regional markets – commonplace in the eastern half of the nation – promise to improve grid efficiency and reliability, and to reduce consumer bills. Regionalism promotes development of wind and solar power plants by better aggregating regional renewable outputs, and by more efficiently planning for backup power when wind and solar are not available.

For example, Montana’s wind energy typically blows in mid-afternoon, perfectly matched in real-time to meet regional demand in West Coast urban markets. In contrast, wind resources in the northwest’s Columbia River Gorge tend to blow after midnight – making them an attractive future power source for overnight charging of the millions of electric vehicles expected to operate over our regional roadways in the coming decade.

Creating a vision for a clean energy future is the easy part. More challenging will be its timely execution, which needs to carefully consider all stakeholders, especially our friends and neighbors in coal country.

The lesson from the finished 65th legislative session is that we must not fiddle away precious time.

And, we must no longer sidestep a simple fact – made all the more difficult given our state’s time-honored carbon fuels legacy: Burning coal to generate electricity is nothing less than an existential threat to the health of our planet.

I call on my legislative colleagues to join me in developing policies that promote:

• clean electric energy

• delivered by a modernized Montana grid

• for in-state and export markets.

Montana should pursue an energy future that marries economic enterprise with environmental stewardship. Our utilities should partner with us in that effort. It’s a winning combination – one for which our kids and grand kids will thank us.

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Chris Pope is serving his second term as state representative from Bozeman’s House District 65. He is a current member of the Montana House Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee. The committee’s work schedule and activity can be followed at  https://leg.mt.gov/committees/interim/2019etic/