This article by Jeff L. Fox originally appeared in the Billings (Mont.) Gazette November 10, and is reprinted with permission of the author.
“It’s not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It’s the customer who pays the wages.” ”• Henry Ford
PPL’s announcement that it will mothball its 44-year-old Corette coal plant in 2015 generated a lively conversation this election season. The plant is old, dirty, and uncompetitive in today’s market. Yet, little coverage has focused on the relative benefits for Montana in this story. I would like to offer a few facts for the reader’s consideration.
First, at least a portion of the energy from Corette is being purchased and consumed by NorthWestern Energy ratepayers at the contracted cost of $53 a megawatt hour.
Meanwhile, NorthWestern ratepayers have just built and purchased the brand new Spion Kop wind farm in Montana that is estimated by the Public Service Commission to deliver power at a cost of $53 a megawatt hour. The cost ratepayers pay for energy from Corette does not include the total cost of its impact on our air or water quality–pollution costs that are borne by all of us. Spion Kop, on the other hand, will deliver equally affordable energy while avoiding all of Corette’s air and water pollution.
The difference you as a NorthWestern Energy ratepayer pay between coal and wind is even starker if we broaden our outlook beyond Corette. NorthWestern Energy ratepayers pay a whopping $63 a megawatt hour for coal energy from Colstrip, for example. Compare that to the cost of wind energy from the Judith Gap wind farm, where NorthWestern Energy ratepayers pay just $47 a megawatt hour. And the rates of Judith Gap and Spion Kop are stable, like a fixed rate home mortgage, because wind energy is always free, unlike fossil fuels.
The potential loss of the 35 jobs Corette supports in the Billings community is troubling, though far from devastating in a community the size of Billings where the largest employer, the Billings Clinic, has around 3,300 employees based in Billings. We all hope the workers at Corette will be re-employed in one of PPL’s many other energy facilities in the state. But still, if job losses are a concern, the jobs may be being made up elsewhere. Wind energy, for example, has added at least 37 new permanent positions in Montana, directly employed by the wind industry, in 2012 alone.
Think about our energy future for a moment. Montana exports well over half of the electricity we generate. If we’d like to continue our role as an electricity exporter, and continue to enjoy the jobs and economic investment it brings, our most likely market growth opportunities are in wind energy, other renewables and natural gas. The main importers of our electricity products–Washington, Oregon and California–now all have low-carbon energy standards that effectively prohibit any new purchases of energy generated by coal-burning facilities.
Low energy prices that contributed to the Corette plant’s planned closure benefit nearly everyone–residential customers, small businesses, large manufacturing operations. If generating our electricity from homegrown, renewable resources is cheaper over the long-term and more stable in price, doesn’t create the same pollution impacts as fossil fuels, and helps our local economies, it deserves our investment. Montana wind power is delivering on that promise and should be celebrated for its success.
Jeff L. Fox of Bozeman is Montana policy manager for Renewable Northwest Project, a nonprofit regional advocacy group.