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Powering the Mountain States: A snapshot of the region’s energy portfolio

Updated: May 14

Our region is at a critical time in its energy landscapes, navigating a complex network of resources, policies, and environmental concerns. This latest winter was a great case study for the reliability problem of intermittent green sources that are being pushed nationwide.

 

In Montana, Northwestern Energy spokesperson Jo Dee Black commented in January, “Wind and solar generation could not produce much if any, power during the extreme cold.” 

 

In Washington, Grant County PUD stated, “frigid temperatures throughout Grant County and the Pacific Northwest pushed energy use to record levels, strained many regional electric grids, and put a heavy draw on our region’s capacity to generate electricity.” 


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The same problem occurs during periods of extreme heat. As wind-generated electricity fails during this time, hydropower picks up the slack. With a national movement to breach the Snake River dams, legislators need to take this concern seriously.


With that in mind, let’s take a look at the current energy portfolios in the Mountain States.

 

Washington State is heavily dependent on hydroelectric energy. In their efforts to replace hydroelectric energy, Washington lawmakers have been pushing for other renewable sources including solar and wind. The state also has a goal of 100% zero-emissions electricity by 2045. In this desired timeline, all electric utilities must eliminate coal-fired generation serving Washington state customers by 2025.

 

During extreme weather events, these intermittent energy sources have proven to not be reliable. Wind specifically has proven to disappear when there are extremely high or low temperatures. While these diversification efforts of the power grid are understandable, they are coming at the expense of reliable baseload power like natural gas, nuclear, and hydro.

 

Idaho runs on natural gas, hydroelectric, and other renewable sources like wind and solar. In-state coal production is minimal, but Idaho's utilities bring in electricity from coal-fired power plants in neighboring states. However, Idaho's largest electric utility plans to end its coal-fired power generation purchases by 2028. 

 

The Snake River dams are still crucial for Idaho’s energy grid. Realizing this, the Idaho legislature this year passed a joint memorial stating that it opposes the removal or breaching of the dams on the Columbia-Snake River System and its tributaries. The legislature also passed a resolution in support of the Idaho National Laboratory which is a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory that researches nuclear and renewable energy sources. 

 

Montana has a heavier portion of coal-generated energy than Washington State or Idaho. Between 1986 and 2020, coal-fired generation provided most of the electricity produced in the state due to the completion of the Colstrip Plant. But now the future of coal generation in Montana is changing.

 

Since then, hydroelectric dams have proven to be an important resource in Montana’s energy generation mix and produced half of the state’s net electric generation in 2021. Also in 2021, Montana ranked sixth among all states for power generated by hydroelectric dams.


Behind Texas, Wyoming stands as the second largest exporter of energy in the nation, as it produces 12 times more energy than the state consumes. The state is generating the most coal-fired energy out of the Mountain States. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon is promoting an energy policy agenda that features advances in wind and nuclear technology. In 2022, the Wyoming Energy Authority signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to collaborate on the research, development, demonstration, and deployment of nuclear energy technologies.


An upcoming challenge is that PacifiCorp intends to retire 14 of its 22 active coal units by 2030 and another five by 2040 and plans to add more than 3,600 megawatts of wind, more than 5,600 megawatts of solar, and around 6,700 megawatts of battery storage. With the intermittent nature of these sources coupled with the current energy velocity that Wyoming is producing, this decision could prove to be consequential.  


The energy landscapes of Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming reflect a complex interplay of resources, policies, and regional dynamics. From the heavy reliance on hydroelectric power in Washington to the historic dominance of coal-fired generation in Montana and Wyoming, each state faces its own set of energy transitions and policy dilemmas.

 

Looking ahead, the Mountain States have an opportunity to lead the way toward a reliable, sustainable, and affordable energy sector. By embracing baseload sources like natural gas, hydro, and nuclear these states can continue towards a more prosperous and resilient future.

As these states navigate the complexities of the energy transition, sustainability, and affordability, they must be wary of using intermittent sources to replace reliable baseload power.

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