In less than a decade, renewable energy generation has grown exponentially in the United States. In 2012, renewable energy accounted for nearly 50% of all new U.S. power generation. State renewable energy standards- policies requiring a minimum amount of a state’s electricity to come from renewable energy—are an important reason for this growth. Thirty states, including Montana, have adopted renewable energy standards.
Over the next year, the legislative Energy interim committee will be studying the economic and environmental impacts of Montana’s renewable energy standard. This study presents an opportunity to describe how renewable energy has improved Montana’s economy, protected our environment, and benefited consumers and local communities across the state.
In 2005, Montana’s renewable energy standard passed the legislature and became law. Its official title is the Renewable Power Production and Rural Economic Development Act. The law requires public utilities to obtain 15 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2015. Eligible resources include wind, small hydro, solar, biomass and geothermal energy. Notably, the law passed with bipartisan support in both the Senate and House and was signed by Governor Schweitzer
Montana has tremendous renewable resources, particularly wind. It is not surprising, then, that NorthWestern Energy, Montana’s largest utility, is already on course to meet 15 percent of their energy needs with renewable energy—two years ahead of the 2015 deadline.
Renewable energy projects like the Judith Gap wind farm in Wheatland County and the new Spion Kop wind farm in Cascade County are supplying NorthWestern’s customers with affordable and clean energy. Projects like these are not only generating energy: they are generating jobs and tax dollars for our state and local economies and helping fund roads, bridges and schools.
Since 2005, renewable energy projects built in Montana have generated over $1.3 billion dollars in capital investment, created hundreds of permanent jobs and produced enough clean energy to power about 250,000 homes. The renewable standard has been a catalyst behind this development. Nearly all of Montana’s renewable energy growth occurred after 2005—the year that the renewable standard passed.
Expanding economic development in rural communities was another major driver behind Montana’s renewable standard. Specifically, the law requires utilities to purchase a certain amount of energy from “community renewable energy projects.” These projects must be owned in part by Montana citizens, communities, or Tribes. Several community renewable projects have been built since the standard passed. These projects help create good- paying jobs and boost rural economic development
For example, near Fairfield, Montana the Turnbull hydro project generates electricity from a turbine placed on an existing irrigation canal in the Greenfields Irrigation District. Montana residents own this project and local contractors helped build it. NorthWestern Energy purchases power from Turnbull to meet its community renewable requirement
Community renewable projects like Turnbull hydro exemplify the build, buy, and benefit local principle—a principle that is just as important for energy, as it is for food and other necessities.
Renewable energy t has also been good for our environment. Adding pollution-free, renewable, resources to our energy mix helps protect Montana’s clear air and clean water. Unlike fossil fuels, renewable resources have zero direct carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, or mercury emissions. These emissions harm public health and accelerate global climate disruption.
In Montana, renewable energy has displaced over two million tons of harmful pollutants that can contaminate the water we drink and the air we breathe. Cleaning up environmental contamination costs taxpayers money. It’s simple: renewable energy saves us all money by reducing pollution and its associated costs.
Speaking of saving money; renewable energy also reduces our energy bills. Wind power helps stabilize rates by providing NorthWestern Energy’s customers with affordable energy. After energy efficiency, wind is the next least expensive resource in NorthWestern’s energy mix.
Without a doubt, the renewable energy standard has been a good deal for Montana. The standard helped put Montana develop cleaner energy that is less costly to consumers, taxpayers and our environment. I am confident that the energy interim committee’s legislative study will substantiate the positive impacts renewable energy development has had state-wide.
However, the 15% renewable by 2015 standard is only a start—Montana can expand renewable energy development and reap more of its benefits if we establish a more ambitious renewable standard, post-2015. Experience has already proven that doing so would be a win; win for Montana’s economy and our environment.
In Helena, I’m Kyla Maki with the Montana Environmental Information Center and the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit AERO online at aeromt.org.
This commentary originally aired on Montana Public Radio on November 7, 2013.