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By Tom Lutey, Billings Gazette

The NorthWestern Energy Building

In a plan that allows its largest carbon-emitting asset in Montana to continue burning through 2044, NorthWestern Energy announced Thursday it was committed to net-zero emissions by 2050.

The utility emphasized its current plans to build two “on-demand” natural-gas-fired power plants, one in Montana and one in South Dakota. The plants would be capable of being scaled up or down to accommodate variable power from renewable resources, a responsiveness that the utility’s existing combined cycle power plants don’t have.

“We have the tremendous honor to be the stewards of this critical energy infrastructure that delivers safe and reliable energy to our region. Now is the time to raise the bar and start the transition to net zero by 2050,” said Brian Bird, NorthWestern Energy president and chief operating officer, in a press release.

The announcement comes as 32 Montana organizations sent letters to NorthWestern Energy’s board of directors asking them to direct the state’s largest monopoly utility to create an actionable and impactful decarbonization plan. The groups called the 2050 net-zero plan a good first step, but said the company was still headed in the wrong direction as it adds natural gas pipelines and power plants for another 13 years.

“We appreciate NorthWestern’s small step toward a clean energy future and look forward to working with it to create a plan with near-term goals that will actually start reducing emissions,” said Ann Hedges, Montana Environmental Information Center co-director. “Increased fossil fuel dependency means increased costs for customers, more expensive stranded assets, and a failure to decarbonize according to the latest scientific research.”

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