Billings Gazette: As coal and gas prices slide, renewable energy getting a second look

Corey Sell’s firm launched three decades ago to service the Colstrip power plant and mine, but the co-owner of CEI Electrical Contractors isn’t as worried now as people might think.

In recent years, CEI, whose offices in Billings and Colstrip are in the heart of Montana’s coal country, has seen its biggest work demand from the wind-energy industry. CEI services the giant turbines, nacelles and other equipment that dot hillsides of wind farms in several states.

Sell is a Colstrip native and has plenty of customers in the fossil-fuel industry, including the Colstrip plant, Phillips 66 and other oil refineries.

He said he’s rooting for the Colstrip plant to survive the current tough environment for coal. If it can’t, however, he knows his company can weather that storm.

“If that (plant) went away, it wouldn’t kill us. It would suck, but it wouldn’t kill us,” Sell said during the recent Montana Energy forum in Billings.

CEI (which stands for Colstrip Electric) was one of about a half dozen vendors at the expo inside the newly rebranded Radisson Hotel.

The company is co-owned by Sell and Colstrip-based Brent Burton and has about 100 employees now, with the majority in Montana. CEI hires union workers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The Montana Energy gathering, hosted by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., featured about a dozen keynote speakers, centered around the oil and gas and coal industries.

Many were worried about the future of fossil-fuel energy, where low prices have forced production cutbacks and layoffs.

The six utility owners of Colstrip, which include power companies in Washington and Oregon, are looking to shutter parts or all of the plant to meet state mandates to curb carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

On Thursday, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee said he would sign a bill authorizing Puget Sound Energy, a Washington-based part owner, to set aside money for the eventual shutdown of the plant.

On the wind energy side of the Montana Energy conference, industry officials were more optimistic.

The potential capacity for further wind development in rural Montana is huge, they say. A key federal production tax credit has been extended through the end of 2019, offering added certainty for wind developers planning future projects.

In past years, the tax credit would expire after one year, leaving wind developers scrambling to launch projects in time to save millions in production costs.

Also, renewable energy standards in Pacific coastal states in creating an appetite for more green power, which means utilities there could look to buy power from across state lines to satisfy requirements, wind-energy officials said Thursday in Billings.

“If we can figure out the rules and regs… this state has the biggest wind energy opportunity across the West,” Rob Gramlich, a senior vice president for the American Wind Energy Association, said Thursday at Montana Energy.

Wind energy also faces hurdles to expansion, most significantly transmission capacity. Wind farms in rural areas need more high-voltage lines to bring power to substations and the rest of the grid.

Also, wind is intermittent, meaning generation only happens when the wind blows, so it must be paired with reliable baseline power, which usually means coal, hydro or natural gas.

“In the future mix, I think coal has a very prominent role to play,” said Dave McClain, senior director of development for Pittsburgh, Pa.-based EverPower Wind Holdings, which is developing wind project in Carbon County and near Wolf Point.

McClain was part of a Wednesday panel discussion at Montana Energy about integrating renewables into the power grid.

For Sell at CEI, a mix of coal and wind would be good news. But the Colstrip is gearing for growth in just one of those sectors.

“I would expect over the next several years there will be a lot of wind energy,” Sell said.