Looking Closer to Home for Energy Solutions

BY BEN BROUWER

At the end of 88 days in session, the Montana Legislature has nearly managed to assemble a budget, and they’ve plowed through hundreds of bills. But unfortunately they’re leaving behind a staggering piece of unfinished business: Montana remains stuck without any real protection from rising prices at the gas pump or from utility bills that climb year after year. We’re stuck without a plan for energy security that doesn’t depend on the volatile Middle East or finite and polluting domestic supplies of coal, oil, and gas.

The cheapest and quickest way out of this dilemma is to find ways of simply using less. On the home front, that might mean taking inspiration from the signs of spring we saw last weekend, and doing two things: 1) plant a garden, and 2) build a clothesline. You really can’t get much closer to self-reliance than picking kale and tomatoes from the front yard while your underwear flaps in the breeze.

As the Legislature wraps up its business, Montana isn’t any closer to real energy security or the prosperity that would come with it.

That’s not to say there weren’t valiant attempts to set our state in a new direction. One bill would have increased the amount of wind energy that flows through our power lines. It never got out of its first committee. Even no-brainers like legislation to include an energy efficiency expert on the state council that sets energy efficiency standards for our buildings didn’t have a chance.

On the other end of the spectrum, we saw legislation that would have watered down and all together dismantled our state’s Renewable Energy Standard. That’s the law that ensures at least 15% of our electricity comes from new, cost-effective, clean energy supplies. Another bill, which is on its way to the Governor’s desk despite broad bi-partisan opposition, would eliminate renewable energy and conservation tax credits. More than 28,000 Montana tax payers claimed those credits last year to help pay for things like insulation, upgraded furnaces, or new windows.

The bad bills were defeated, for the most part, by Montana businesses looking to grow our clean energy economy, by determined citizen activists who showed up by the hundreds for rallies at the Capitol, and these bills were tossed out by our elected conservation champions from both sides of the aisle. And in some cases we still need Governor Schweitzer’s veto brand.

So, with a draw at the Legislature, it’s time to look somewhere else for the solutions we need. Thankfully there are some inspiring examples coming from local governments, Montana businesses, and innovative community leaders who are stepping up to find ways of using less energy, and to get what they do use from cleaner sources closer to home.

In Havre there’s a non-profit organization called Opportunity Link, which works to reduce poverty in North Central Montana. They’ve established a regional bus system that’s using a biodiesel fuel mix produced through a partnership with MSU Northern. The biodiesel fueling this fleet of buses is grown right here in Montana.

At the City of Helena’s wastewater treatment facility, City staff have teamed up with NorthWestern Energy to cut energy consumption by more than 35%. That’s a huge savings: more than $200,000 on the City’s annual energy bill.  They’ve managed this by tweaking the facility’s aeration system, swapping out old motors and pumps, and by piping methane to a Sterling generator that spins out electricity and heat that can be reused in the wastewater treatment process.

In Bozeman, the City Council recently adopted a Community Climate Action Plan. It’s an ambitious plan that aims to reverse Bozeman’s trend of rising energy consumption through a series of conservation challenges, educational campaigns, new funding for public transit, and even a five-cent fee on plastic bags.

At the Stoltz Land and Lumber Company in Columbia Falls, a business called Algae AquaCulture Technologies has set up shop.  They’re testing methods of using mill waste to produce heat, electricity, algae-based biofuel, and even soil amendments.

These examples of leadership and innovation will be on display at the Local Energy Solutions Conference hosted May 18th and 19th in Helena by AERO, Montana’s Alternative Energy Resources Organization.

At the end of the day, efficiency and conservation have always made sense: why should we waste our precious natural resources and throw away hard-earned cash when there’s a better way to do business?

After efficiency, we ought to be looking to the abundant, homegrown energy supplies this state is blessed with: we’ve got wind over the high plains, sun beating down on rooftops, and energy bound up in oilseed crops grown by our state’s expert farmers.  Let’s put these things to work.

Speaking for AERO, I’m Ben Brouwer. You can find more details about the Local Energy Solutions Conference by visiting aeromt.org. Thanks for listening.

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This commentary aired April 28, 2011 on Montana Public Radio.

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