HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's much-maligned 1990s-era experiment with utility deregulation is one step closer to reaching an end.
NorthWestern Energy Corp. made its pitch Friday to investors on its plans to spend $900 million to buy back 11 hydroelectric dams that were sold off to PPL Corp. during deregulation.
CEO Bob Rowe said buying the dams is in the long-term interest of customers and shareholders, echoing comments made by Montana Power leaders more than a decade earlier to justify opening the market. The idea received a warm immediate reaction from investors and policy leaders, and share prices rose slightly on the news.
NorthWestern Energy didn't have to look far to find the "absolute ideal resource," as Rowe put it, to provide electricity to its Montana customers — the same hydroelectric dams once part of the utility's operations.
Rowe said he has envisioned rebuilding a utility that owns its own electricity generation capability ever since taking over in 2008. The chance to buy back dams that were built for its customers, and already are tied into its network, was a "unique" opportunity that will transform the company.
"This is a huge step forward, entirely consistent with what we have been describing to you," Rowe told investors of their plans. "This is a historic transaction for NorthWestern, and I believe for our customers as well."
He said more than half the company's power would be provided by renewable sources — hydro, wind, or solar — after it completes the deal. And it would own enough generation power to completely serve customers during light-load times.
The company said it is buying the assets at a time when energy prices are low, and power generation is relatively cheap. Montana consumers, who saw power prices spike in the early 2000s almost immediately after deregulation, know that isn't always the case.
For years, many in the state have dreamt of rebuilding the broken pieces of a stable, publicly regulated utility.