Unleash Renewable Energy in Montana

Ryan Applegate2I am not an energy expert.  However, as a Montanan, I care about energy independence.  A couple years ago while I was living in Dillon, Montana, news came down of a plan for a major transmission line through town.   You might remember it.  It was a contentious issue, divisive.   But what I will be talking about for the next few minutes should not be a contentious or divisive issue for this state.

I am going to talk about “net metering”–which allows home and community scale solar power arrays, wind turbines and micro hydro generators to be part of the energy-producing portfolio of this state. It makes sense.

Montana’s net metering law was passed by the state legislature, on a nearly unanimous vote, in 1999.  Here’s how it works:  Montana homes, businesses, schools and other public facilities can install generators with a capacity of up to 50 kilowatts on their own properties.  When the sun is shining, the wind blowing, or the water flowing, and more energy is generated than is being used on site, the meter essentially turns backward and pushes energy to the utility owned power grid to be used by the next closest energy consumer, their neighbor.  The utility, NorthWestern Energy for most Montanans, then credits the owner of the small-scale power system in proportion to what has been provided to the grid.

This 1999 law has led to the installation of more than one thousand solar, wind or micro-hydro generators providing clean power to Montana homes, businesses, schools, farms and ranches.  A multi-million dollar industry made up of more than fifty Montana-based businesses has emerged to meet the demand for this safe, diversified energy supply, and the owners of these systems have saved more than one million dollars on their utility bills.

Unfortunately, the 2013 Montana Legislature missed an opportunity to make net metering more economical and available to businesses and individuals when it failed to support two common-sense bills:

* Senate Bill 247, sponsored by Senator Mike Phillips of Bozeman, would have raised the 50-kilowatt limit to 100 kilowatts.  Forty-one other states have a cap of 100 kilowatts or higher, a move that brings down the costs of projects for large businesses and farms.  For example, in Montana the largest solar array is a recently installed 85-kilowatt system. Due to the cap of 50 kilowatts, this system had to be installed as two separate entities, complicating the process and raising the cost of installation.

* The second bill, House Bill 394, sponsored by Representative Tom Jacobson of Great Falls, would have allowed groups of people living in the same condo or apartment building to pool their resources and co-own small solar, wind or micro-hydro projects. A good resource for low-income housing and one example of what is called “aggregate net-metering.”

Both bills had bi-partisan support and the Senate bill lost by just two votes on its first vote by the full senate.

Supporting laws to increase the development of on-site, locally controlled renewable energy is simply right for Montana. These bills would have enabled consumers to take advantage of economies of scale and increase the production of clean, Montana-made energy. They were designed to allow local businesses to thrive, and to keep more money in our state and in the pockets of Montanans.

Currently, NorthWestern Energy’s “E+” renewable energy program provides incentives for installing small-scale clean energy systems; it’s a good program that encourages investment in clean energy.

Which is why I was disappointed when the lead lobbyist for NorthWestern Energy opposed both bills, calling net metering “a small nuisance” to the company and stated that he’d like to see it stay that way—small. He also claimed that net metering fails “the prudent man test.” This test, which has its roots in English law, asks what a reasonable person would do when faced with a choice.   Here’s the choice as I see it:

Do we, as prudent persons, want to limit ourselves to relying on centralized energy production—in Montana’s case, from coal, natural gas, wind and large-scale hydropower from aging dams?

Or, do we, as prudent persons, want policies that enable individual entrepreneurs, homeowners and Montana-based businesses to invest in and create decentralized, clean energy to supplement our energy needs?

Unfortunately, this time many of our Legislators sided with NorthWestern Energy when they voted against Senate Bill 247 and House Bill 394, discouraging new investments in locally controlled renewable energy projects.

The price of renewable energy installations, especially solar, has fallen rapidly in recent years, and the ability of on-site energy production to supplement our energy needs and provide real, permanent jobs for Montanans is being realized. But to let this industry really take off, we need to update the rules they’re playing by.  Already, renewable energy advocates and businesses are looking ahead to the next legislative session in 2015, as an opportunity to pass some very prudent laws and move more rapidly toward this practical energy vision for Montana.

In Missoula, I’m Ryan Applegate for Montana’s Alternative Energy Resources Organization.  AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974.  Visit us online at www.aeromt.org.

This commentary originally aired on March 28, 2013 on Montana Pubic Radio.

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