NorthWestern Energy Stockholders’ Meeting

NorthWestern Energy’s board chairman, Steve Adik, talks to 350 Montana’s co-chairs Jeff Smith and John Woodland on the sidewalk before the stockholders’ meeting in Butte

One week after a dozen 350 Montana members testified at a public hearing on NorthWestern Energy’s energy plan at the company headquarters in Butte, we returned to attend the company’s April 25 stockholders’ meeting.

Five members of our leadership team bought NWE stock in recent months, and four of us attended the  closed-door meeting. There are nearly 50 million shares in the company. In addition to two presentations given by the chairman of the board and the company’s chief operating officer, shareholders voted to elect the new board, ratify the choice of this year’s accounting firm, and approve executive officers’ compensation.

Outside on the sidewalk, we set up an information table on climate change and renewable energy and sang songs to bring attention to the meeting inside. Guitarists Dave Harmon and Bruce Bender “adjusted” the wording to several classic folk songs and sang about net-metering, wind power, and renewable energy.

Inside, after the presentations and before the voting tallies were announced, CEO Bob Rowe took questions. There was a brief moment of silence before 350 Montana co-chair, John Woodland, raised his hand and asked whether the company was taking into account the effects of climate change. Rowe and two other executives talked about the company’s portfolio of hydro and wind, its environmental stewardship report, and the statutory demands of providing a “reliable power supply.” They said their operational data makes them wary of new wind and solar. They did not mention capturing and storing renewable energy with batteries or pumped storage technology.

After a brief silence, 350 Montana’s Marta Meengs stood up to a microphone and asked about how dependable it would be for the company’s rate-payers to move to a whole new generation of natural gas generators. Rowe said the company served “customers,” not “rate-payers.” And he talked about spending over $1 billion over the next five years to improve the company’s infrastructure. The company has a gap between its supply and peak power demands. It is conducting pilot programs to look at energy storage, improving the reliability of renewable energy, and smart grid technology. It doesn’t want to have to rely on the market for electrical energy because of its potential price swings.

Silence. John Woodland raised his hand again and asked about making up this gap with energy efficency, insulating homes and cutting energy demand. I was listening closely but I don’t think I heard a coherent answer. There was talk about regulatory problems and de-coupling energy rates from volume and the company’s fixed assets, but . . . it’s difficult to say whether that answered John’s question.

Silence. Then 350 Montana’s Tim Spangler asked the fourth and last question about the company’s lack of support for customers who installed their own solar panels. There was another flurry of words, talk of solar customers paying four times less than regular customers, and how that wasn’t sustainable because solar customers weren’t paying for the company’s infrastructure. Again, I’d have to say that these answers, though sincere, weren’t terribly persuasive.

In the end, it’s hard to know what impact we had, especially when you consider that, after our questions, more than 98 percent of stockholders (44 million, most by proxy) voted to approve the company’s board, accounting, and executive pay. The board adjourned the meeting.

I keep thinking about 44 million stockholders’ votes. That’s a big vote of confidence in the company and future direction .