Sadly, this segment will be the last aired AERO commentary – MTPR is discontinuing the commentaries. We are very thankful for the support and inclusion on the show from MTPR.
Click here for a link to the audio recording.
In the summer of 1974, a group of eight young adults gathered on a porch in Billings. They recently attended a Montana Alternative Energy Conference. Energized by its large nationwide attendance, they all came away determined to do more. Specifically, they wanted to create an energy organization that, instead of saying “no” to all the things they were against, instead said, “YES” to all the exciting possibilities they were for. And so, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization—or AERO, as it is commonly called—was born. It was the first citizen-driven renewable energy advocacy organization in the United States.
Thirty-four years later, on a wind-swept piece of ground in Roundup, MT, I found myself looking out across a small field that I fiercely hoped, the following year, would grow tomatoes, squash, beets, carrots, cucumbers, melons, and every other vegetable that my future farm’s future customers might enjoy. I faced substantial obstacles, but I was full of big dreams. Luckily for me—though I didn’t know it at the time—I was only months away from my first encounter with AERO’s Annual Meeting: one of the most inspiring gatherings of innovative farmers, ranchers, and renewable energy advocates in Montana.
During the 1980’s, in reaction to the agricultural industry’s ever-increasing dependence on fossil fuels, AERO broadened its mission to include support for sustainable farming. Agriculture was—and still is—Montana’s number one industry. But, the great majority of the crops and livestock raised on Montana’s 60 million acres of farm and rangeland are exported as bulk raw commodities. Less than nine percent of our agricultural products are processed before they leave the state. Therefore, a great majority of the food that we eat must be imported. Improving this balance would waste less energy, keep money in our communities, and increase the availability of healthy, local food for all Montanans. AERO—along with sustainable farmers and ranchers across the state—has made significant progress for sustainable, local farming.
When I was finally introduced to AERO, having just broken ground on my own small farm, I could not have imagined a community of people more connected, more passionate, and more able to encourage me along my path. Through the decades, AERO has remained an organization that, when encountering a young person, full of big ideas and big dreams, has said: YES. What you’re working for might be hard. It might take a long time. But you can do it, and we will help you. Come with us. YES.
Ben Reed, Winpower West
It was a daunting task those forward-thinking individuals undertook 40 years ago! Having started a business myself, a short 27 years ago, it didn’t take me long to grasp the difficulties involved in trying to make a living designing, selling, and installing renewable energy systems. Given the very high costs of wind and, in particular, solar systems, and an overall lack of knowledge within the general population, it became apparent that my business plan would need to be sustainable and include other revenue streams until the day that the cost figures for renewable energy sources were competitive with other traditional power sources. I saw this as an opportunity to start educating people about the benefits of renewable energy, just as the founding members of AERO had been engaged in for 13 years.
I crossed paths with some of those AERO members over the years and had some general conversations about the need for forward progress in the renewable energy arena. In my own business, we were installing a few off-grid systems without seeing much progress towards establishing a healthy, thriving renewable energy business. However, about 15 years ago, system prices and technological advances opened up new applications and markets for renewable energy—the era of grid-tied systems had arrived. In the last five to six years, solar prices have fallen approximately 50%, making grid-tied solar the fastest growing energy sector in the U.S. economy and around the globe.
While this led to a greater adoption of renewable energies, it simultaneously opened up a virtual can of nightmares related to the language and implementation of state statutes that were, on the surface, to be friendly to consumers of electrical energy. These policy issues brought the mission of AERO, and other like-minded organizations, into sharp focus. We not only advocate for energy conservation and the use of clean, renewable energy, but also for public policies that do not hinder their adoption. Joining AERO was an opportunity to make a difference by helping coordinate the efforts of diverse, but like-minded organizations into becoming a unified voice across our great state. What an opportunity! I have now seen, up close, and am able to share, the passion and the positive enthusiasm that started with AERO 40 years ago – still vibrant, and still making a difference!