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Keeping The Lights On

Why Montana Doesn't Have Blackouts

At the time of this writing, Texas had just been devastated by the aftermath of a cold front and related power failures. Naturally, coming off of the massive blackouts that stretched from Texas to New Jersey in February, and California’s increasingly chronic and well-publicized energy unreliability, a question was fresh in my mind: why doesn’t Montana suffer from power outages?

At first glance, it seems unusual that Montanans should enjoy uninterrupted electrical power when larger states with larger populations and budgets do not. Unlike Texas, we do not possess some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves and refining and generating capacity. And, unlike most of California, we experience extreme temperature fluctuations. Montana is capable of temperatures of 110 degrees in the summer, and -30 degrees Fahrenheit is by no means off the table in the winter. 140-degree temperature variations are kind of a big deal, at least on planet earth. Suffice it to say, air conditioners in Montana get a workout. Consider, if you will, that the average daily temperature during Texas’ cold spell was around 22 degrees above zero. Imagine the collateral damage if Montana’s homes and hospitals lost power during our sub-zero stretch, when temperatures got as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tony O’Donnell, the Public Service Commissioner for southeastern Montana, including Yellowstone County, had some answers for me. He attributes Montana’s success to a shared goal between the state’s power companies and the PSC that regulates them: “The name of the game in Montana is to provide maximum electrical reliability to Montana homes and businesses at an affordable price.”

The Public Service Commission and Montana’s power companies, especially Northwestern Energy, have worked hard to make that goal a reality.

Montana’s energy industry is in some ways a testament to the phrase, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Because of the extreme temperature conditions in this state, power plants are almost always fully indoors, enclosed in protective structures. This is not the case in Texas, where they are prone to extreme heat but not extreme cold. Consequently, it is usually more efficient to have outdoor plants to more easily disperse the heat, a system that works very well until you have an unusual cold snap like the one in February. The unusually cold temperatures damaged exposed hardware and caused power plants to fail, guaranteeing that millions of Texans lost power at the worst possible time.

Another reason that Montana enjoys more stable power than Texas is the different relationship between the power companies and the regulating entities in the two states. In Montana, the relationship between the power company and the regulator is fairly straightforward: voters elect the Public Service Commission, and the PSC regulates the power companies. If ratepayers are displeased due to unreliability or excessive costs, a strong chance exists that new Commissioners will be elected in the next cycle that will be significantly less friendly to the offending power companies. Texas’ structure is less direct and more complicated, comprising a number of entities including the Public Utility Commission (PUC) and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Some of these positions are appointed rather than elected, and therefore shielded from direct consequences for poor performance.

Montana outperforms California in energy reliability primarily due to our decision to utilize diversity in energy sources. California has chosen in recent years to attempt to power their state entirely from renewable energy. Unfortunately, renewables are not known for efficiency, reliability, or cost effectiveness. While California’s solar energy industry is capable of generating large surpluses during the day, it produces nothing at night. At times when the sun is obscured during the day, as it was during California’s wildfires, the system can and does critically fail.

On the other hand, Montana possesses significant resources of most forms of energy and utilizes them all. We have 30% of the nation’s coal reserves, burned at adjacent plants in Colstrip. Our non-trivial oil and natural gas reserves are serviced by four refineries. Montana’s 24 utility-scale hydroelectric plants make us the sixth-largest producer of hydroelectric power in the country. Parts of the state have incredible weather conditions for wind power and an increasingly large number of merchant generators that capture wind and solar power and sell it on the open market.

Let’s take a moment to be thankful for Montana’s affordable and reliable energy industries, the people who built them, and the people who work them.

  • Hydroelectric Dam
  • Wind Turbines
  • Solar Farm
  • Gas Turbine Electrical Power Plant