The turnout was huge on Tuesday night at the moderated discussion hosted by the Montana DEQ. By some counts, nearly 200 local and area residents attended the meeting; that’s enormous for a Colstrip political meeting. The DEQ conducted a very helpful and friendly toned meeting. After a short presentation about the scope of the meeting and an overview of an energy scenario calculation tool built by DEQ and available for anyone to use, the DEQ director hosted a panel discussion. The panel members were: Gordon Criswell, Environmental Director for PPL Montana; Rex Rogers of the local IEBW union; Mike Barnes of North Western Energy; state Rep. Duane Ankney; Tracey Stone-Manning, Director of DEQ; and Dave Klemp, chief of the DEQ Air Resource Management Bureau. Each panel member told the audience their thoughts, concerns, and questions regarding the proposed scenarios and rules offered by DEQ and EPA.
Gordon Criswell told the crowd that the Colstrip plant has for decades aggressively tackled air quality and sought to improve the efficiency and pollution controls. Mr Criswell said that PPLMT fully supports pollution control but the EPA rule and DEQ proposals will create unintended consequences that will weaken the electrical grid of Montana and cause the coal plants to reduce their production and possibly jobs. He also suggested that if the EPA rule is enacted PPLMT will likely challenge it in court. Rex Rogers argued that some kind of EPA regulation will come to Montana. He wants to preserve coal jobs but also wants to see Montana get ahead of the regulatory game and create a solution well suited for Montana rather than waiting for the federal government to design the plan. Mike Barnes, similar to Gordon Criswell, is concerned with the unintended consequences of the rule since renewable energy, as a primary source of energy, cannot provide the required base loads needed to keep the electrical grid stable. Duane Ankney mostly agreed with his fellow panel members and promised to work at the state level to make sure the DEQ crafts a proposal that provides opportunity for Montana. Tracey Stone-Manning and Dave Klemp advised that they do not think some of the rules proposed by EPA are realistic or possible (for example the requirement for 6% plant energy efficiency improvement at Colstrip by 2030) but since they are tasked with responding to the EPA requirements they will continue to push for rules that are crafted by Montanans and best suited for Montana.
After the panel discussion, the floor was open to the audience. For nearly 45 minutes (or until I left the meeting) a steady flow of thoughtful and insightful questions were asked. Questioners included: the mayor of Colstrip, the directory of the park district, the general managers of the plant and mine, retired residents, plant and mine employees, even local and area farmers and ranchers. A few questions made the room tense, but the vast majority were thoughtful questions or comments presented is a humble and respectful tone. What could have been a highly emotional and hyper political meeting turned out to be an engaging discussion about an important matter.
Overall, the general opinion of the crowd was that the EPA rule and scenarios presented by DEQ will ultimately hurt coal towns and Colstrip. Even though Gov. Bullock stressed in a public memo that he is driving for rules that comply with EPA regulations and maintain current coal related jobs, many in the crowd argued that this is simply not possible. The fact is that electricity cannot be produced for the grid unless there is enough room on the transmission lines to transport the electricity and transmission lines have a strict capacity limit. The problem is that the lines are full. This necessarily means that the more renewable energy, or non-coal fired energy, allowed into the transmission lines the more coal generated power has to come off. Under current market regulations, renewables are required to be purchased before the energy produced at coal-fired plants. Coal plants are forced to wait in line to be dispatched. This becomes a problem the longer the wait becomes. Coal plants cannot just turn off the generators and wait for the call from the market. The generators have to stay running at a lower load and ready to be turned up within a few hours notice (if not sooner). This means that the plants stay in operation but without steady profit. This will ultimately result in one of a few outcomes: cost per megawatt will go up, thus an increased cost to the consumer, or the plants will be forced to cut jobs, production, or eventually shutdown because revenue won’t meet expenditures.
From reading the proposed scenarios offered by DEQ, I got the impression that the goal of the EPA is to someday soon help renewable energy (wind, solar, and new hyrdo dams) become the primary provider of electricity. This is a nice idea but it can never happen because it is not possible. Renewable energy sources are inconsistent energy sources and will never be able to provide a steady and consistent load for energy demand. When the wind doesn’t blow the windmills don’t produce and the wind isn’t controllable by the operators. When the water level is low, hydo dam production is low. Coal, gas, and possibly nuclear power plants will always be needed because these fuel sources are constant and reliable. Current renewable fueled generators can only ever compliment our current non-renewable electricity generation; never lead it. At this point, it’s not even a matter of technology but a matter of fuel source and demand. The leading fuel for energy production must be able to be used at any time of season, day, or hour. Coal can do this and we still have a lot of it and it should be used effectively with environmental stewardship in mind.
At the meeting, I saw a crowd who wants to provide affordable energy, maintain a great town, keep strong jobs for a strong natural resource economy and do it in the most environmentally friendly way possible.
Did you attend the meeting? What did you take away? What questions, comments or answers caught your attention?