The Department of Energy is actively working with the ailing Colstrip power plant in Montana to save it from shutdown, DOE Assistant Secretary of Fossil Energy Steven Winberg told Senators Thursday during a hearing on carbon capture technology.
"You have my commitment," Winberg told Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. "We're happy to work with Colstrip and see what opportunities there are to keep it open." The 2,094 MW coal-fired plant is slated for closure, after a bill attempting to save it was rejected by state lawmakers.
The department has worked with the plant's owners and operators on "two studies to date," said Winberg, for plant efficiency and carbon capture utilization. The studies were requested by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, D, according to a spokesperson from one of the plant's owners.
The Trump administration is increasingly seeking ways to aid ailing coal plants, even as the economics of the resource continue to worsen, with utilities finding it more economic to retire coal assets and invest in renewables and gas.
In February, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s board of directors voted to retire the Bull Run coal plant, despite President Donald Trump calling for the utility to keep it open.
A few weeks ago, Montana's legislature debated a controversial "Save Colstrip" bill that would have allowed the state's largest utility, Northwestern Energy, to increase its share of the plant by 150 MW. While the state Senate passed the Republican-backed bill April 9, it was shot down by the House April 17.
Now, the federal government says it's working on yet another option to save the plant.
"I believe Montana is a perfect location for more investment from the DOE. Do I have your commitment?" Daines asked Winberg at Thursday’s hearing.
"Yes sir, you do have the commitment," said Winberg. "In fact, the Department of Energy, the Fossil Fuel Office, has been working with the Colstrip owners and operators."
Ultimately, how and if the plant is saved is up to the operators and owners, Winberg told Utility Dive after the hearing.
"We are pleased to be exploring opportunities for new projects with the DOE," Taryne Williams, spokesperson for Talen Energy, told Utility Dive in an email. Talen owns 50% of the plant.
The DOE’s studies looked into efficiency and "enhanced oil recovery," a process to use captured carbon to increase output from nearby oil fields, as potential avenues of increasing Colstrip’s economic viability.
"These studies were started at the request of Gov. Bullock and have been supported by the congressional delegation, particularly Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte, who are strong supporters of Colstrip. We are hopeful that the economics will enable something to be utilized at Colstrip,” Williams said.
Utilities have conveyed skepticism about the economics of carbon capture. While current tax incentives provide benefits from incorporating carbon capture, a better value proposition for utilities, such as a price on carbon emissions, may be a more viable solution, say some in the industry.