Repower Montana

Last September in Philipsburg, AERO—the Alternative Energy Resources Organization—facilitated the third of four summer and fall public renewable energy tours generously sponsored by NorthWestern Energy.  During that tour a group of about 20 participants learned about Philpsburg’s two micro-hydro generators installed on the town’s municipal water supply line.  That line plummets well over 2,000 feet from Fred Burr Lake, at about 7,600 feet in elevation, to the town.  The generators supply the power for several municipal buildings at a rate typically 10% below the utility’s.

This is a big deal for Philipsburg.  These hydro generators save the town considerable money, which translates into saved jobs and funds for service equipment.  The system and savings span decades.

Standing near one of the generators that day, my Lego-loving, inner engineer was keenly interested in the technical details—the kilowatts and kilowatt-hours, flow rates and turbine blades.  But the more captivating story was—and still is—the personal one about how those installations ever came to be.  The key character in which is one Walter Johnson, affectionately known as “Tiny,” though the city operations manager with a smile assured us that the name was not to be taken literally.

As I recall the story we heard while standing next to one of the humming generators on the steep hillside, it was Mr. Johnson—a local teacher—who had one of those “ah-ha” moments.  He saw the potential to generate electricity for the town by taking advantage of that gravity-driven flow of water.  Simple physics is often a beautiful, thrifty thing.

I do not know all the details of the countless steps in between the birth of Mr. Johnson’s idea and the ultimate installation of the systems.  But the gist is an idea was conceived,  followed by typical discussion, skepticism, and delay, and ultimately, success—success owing to confidence in a good idea, effective communication, persistence, and courage.

There’s a student scholarship in Philipsburg awarded in the name of—in the words of the local foundation—“much revered teacher and local historian & activist Walter (Tiny) Johnson” who passed away in 2007.

I wish I’d known Mr. Johnson.  It’s a really great story.

And it illustrates what AERO members and friends have come to know over 38 years of energy tours and workshops, New Western Energy Shows, and annual meetings: there are countless energy success stories across Montana.

Over the years we’ve introduced thousands of people to energy efficient homes and businesses with cost-effective conservation measures.  We’ve toured solar, wind, and geothermal installations large and small across the state on schools, homes, farms, ranches, and my personal favorite:  breweries.

But it’s become ever clearer that the personal stories are as important—perhaps more important, in fact—than the actual renewable energy installations themselves and their associated costs, incentives, simple payback, and megawatt hours. Personal stories inspire us.  They can engage, entertain, and educate.  And they put a face on what is all too often overly technical and impersonal.  The facts and data are necessary, certainly, but not sufficient.

With that in mind, AERO recently launched a campaign we call Repower MT:  Energy Success Stories from across Montana.  The central hub of the campaign is an interactive online forum where folks across the state can share their stories in words, photos, video, geography, data, and dollars.  It’s a public resource for sharing experience, knowledge and results.

Montana is filled with innovators, and the solutions they’ve deployed have been earned through creative thinking, experimentation, trial and error, some luck, and an indomitable can-do spirit.

These aren’t just energy engineers and technical experts.  They are business owners like Dale Brackman and his auto repair and service shop in Helena with his 6.2-kilowatt solar system.  Or Brian Patrick, the former Superintendent of Townsend School District whose leadership brought solar, wind and biomass to Townsend’s schools to reduce costs and serve as educational tools.  Or the good folks at Garden City Harvest and their solar tracker at the PEAS Farm in Missoula—where every dollar saved on utility costs is a dollar that can go to their community gardens.  These are the Walter Johnson’s taking action across the state—whether the projects save or generate kilowatts or megawatts.

We built Repower MT to get these stories out to a wider audience than the 20 folks who attended that tour in Philipsburg—to make them available throughout Montana and to help others help themselves.

So, please add your story to the mix.  Share it.  Get on the Repower MT map.  We’re here to help.

In Missoula, I’m Bryan von Lossberg, AERO’s executive director.  AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974.  Visit online and add your story to Repower MT at

This commentary aired on April 26, 2012 on Montana Public Radio.

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