A Cleaner, More Affordable Energy Future For Montana

We’ve all been aware for a long time that renewable sources of energy like the sun and wind are better for our health and our planet than fossil fuels like oil and coal.  But many have also assumed—and fossil fuel industries have certainly claimed—that renewable sources are more expensive.  Fortunately, this is NOT true, and we now have an excellent resource to prove it.

Northern Plains Resource Council joined the Civil Society Institute this month in releasing a major new report that outlines a realistic and affordable path to a cleaner and less expensive energy future. Yes, you heard that right: A clean energy future can be a more affordable energy future for Montana and the rest of the United States.

We see the economic and environmental benefits of this approach every day in the Northern Plains offices on South 27th Street in Billings.  The combination of energy efficiency and renewable energy from solar panels has resulted in 79% lower utility bills to heat, cool, and light the building compared to current energy codes.  And the renovation of the 1940s building was achieved with a construction budget that was 20% lower than constructing a new building to current energy standards.  We KNOW it works!

While fossil fuel industries would have us believe that renewable energy costs consumers more, the claim has never been based on any kind of comprehensive study of future energy resources.  The Synapse report, recently published by the Civil Society Institute and available to the public at www.civilsocietyinstitute.org, is a first in examining the whole lay of the energy landscape.  And it persuasively makes the case for phasing out all coal-fired power by 2050 and replacing it with aggressive energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

 The United States always has been less than focused on market-driven principles with respect to its energy policy. All levels of government have sought, for instance, to shift financial and operational risks of coal plants from private industry to the ratepayer and taxpayer. This also goes for oil and natural gas drilling. Although renewable energy companies and energy efficiency technology have received some taxpayer and ratepayer largesse, they pale in comparison to the historic bias toward fossil fuels.

How do we get beyond this unproductive pattern? Rather than shift the risks—and very real costs—from private business to the public in order to force construction of older and dying technologies (such as coal-fired power plants), we should be looking at which energy resources offer the least design, construction, and operational risks to both the public and private investors and that also can meet electric energy demand reliably.

The report compares status quo trends—the Business as Usual Scenario—with a “Transition Scenario” that maps out a much cleaner energy future by 2050. The Transition Scenario is superior to Business As Usual in terms of cost, public health, water usage, and carbon dioxide emission reductions.  And it also creates jobs.

The greatest savings achieved in the study is in the cost of generating electricity. Significant savings are achieved by not building new coal or nuclear plants and systematically phasing out all coal and a portion of the nuclear fleet. This is done with off-the-shelf technologies and efficiency, and makes no assumptions about as-yet-unreleased innovations currently in research and development.

The Transition Scenario also harbors other benefits that would reduce cost and health risks to private investors and the public. If implemented, the Transition Scenario would reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the electric sector by 81 percent. Under the Business As Usual Scenario, they would rise 28 percent. There is also far less water use in the Transition Scenario.

Finally, the study estimates the creation of 310,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the first decade of the transition to a more sustainable energy sector. The manufacturing base would receive a much-needed near-term boost with investment in energy efficiency.

There is something for everyone in this approach. Some people will like the fact that net savings over 40 years are projected to be a whopping $83 billion. That’s great news for consumers! Others will embrace the notion that eliminating pollution from dirty coal-fired power plants by 2050 will mean roughly 55,000 fewer premature deaths over the next several decades. 

The bottom line for Montana is clear: the public interest as well as the private sector is best served by investing our limited financial resources in energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy that will never run out rather than in dirty, finite fossil fuels.  This is the cleaner—and more affordable—approach.

In Billings, this is Ed Gulick for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization and its allies, Northern Plains Resource Council and Civil Society Institute.  AERO has been building sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974.  Visit AERO online at www.aeromt.org.

This commentary aired on January 5th, 2012 on Montana Public Radio.

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