Bozeman Daily Chronicle Guest Column: Unleash Energy Opportunities for Montana

This column originally appeared in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on February 20, 2013.

By Conor Darby, Henry Dykema, Jon Foster and Ben Reed, guest columnists

Montana is built on the foundations of self-sufficiency, entrepreneurialism and fairness. The Montana legislature has an opportunity at hand to represent these values and build the energy security of this state. Senate Bill 247 sponsored by Sen. Mike Phillips of Bozeman and House Bill 394 carried by Rep. Tom Jacobson from Great Falls, will bring down the costs of locally-controlled renewable energy projects and increase opportunities for Montana businesses and families to invest in this technology.

The benefits to Montanans of renewable energy are widely accepted: we get cleaner air, jobs in the construction industry and protection from the inevitable price hikes of finite fossil fuels.

Less well known are the unique benefits of decentralized renewable energy. Solar panels on a fire station rooftop or a small wind turbine spinning behind a farmer’s barn are increasingly common sights. They are examples of the self-sufficiency and entrepreneurialism that our Legislature has the power to unleash on a larger scale.

Broadly distributed around our state there are more than 1,000 solar arrays, small scale wind turbines and micro hydro generators that safely provide power to homes, businesses, schools, farms and ranches. Under a simple arrangement called “net metering,” when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining and these generators produce more energy than the owner is using, those extra electrons flow on to the grid and are sold by the utility to the next closest neighbor. The producer gets a credit for the value of that energy on their power bill.

The electrons that are generated by net metered energy systems (most of which are solar arrays) help to relieve the load on an aging and inefficient transmission grid and help put off the construction of expensive new centralized power plants. Plus, this clean energy means we all get strapped with less pollution control costs on our power bills. Recent analysis weighing the costs and benefits of decentralized solar power in Vermont, California and Texas has shown a net benefit to utility customers in those states.

On top of that, net metering keeps more of our energy dollars in the state. Instead of shipping profits off to the shareholders of PPL (Pennsylvania Power and Light) and NorthWestern Energy, the energy savings stay right here in Montana.

However at present, the amount of electricity generated by these systems in Montana is only 0.06 percent of the electricity that’s sold to NorthWestern Energy’s Montana customers each year. The executives of this state regulated monopoly are pushing back against the competition of customer-owned decentralized power. In opposition to SB 247 and HB 394 NorthWestern Energy’s chief lobbyist told the legislature that net metering is a small “nuisance” and that they’d like to keep it that way.

The 1,000 utility customers who together have saved more than $1 million on their utility bills don’t see it that way, and neither do the more than 50 Montana-based small businesses working to expand this industry. The passage of SB 247 and HB 394 will mean more work for the renewable energy specialists, electricians, concrete contractors, crane operators and engineers that are stepping up to meet the growing demand for clean, Montana-made energy.

HB 394, carried by Rep. Jacobson, would allow residential or commercial utility customers in apartments, condos, low income housing or mixed-use commercial developments to subscribe to the output from a single solar array or wind turbine on the premises. By enabling new ownership and financing models, this bill will bring down the costs of decentralized renewable energy and make it accessible to thousands more Montana businesses and families. SB 247, carried by Sen. Phillips, would raise the size cap on net metered energy systems from 50 kilowatts to 100 kilowatts (enough to supply the electricity for 10-15 average Montana households). Forty-two states have laws permitting systems of this size or larger – Montana is getting left behind.

It’s time for this Legislature to unleash the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs and to embrace the democratic principles of decentralized renewable energy, and the widely shared financial benefits that come with it.

The authors are Conor Darby, Solstice Energy Systems, Bozeman; Henry Dykema, Sundance Solar Systems, Red Lodge; Jon Foster, Moodie Wind Energy, Great Falls; and Ben Reed, Winpower West, Billings.


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