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Bozeman Daily Chronicle
by: Jeff Fox
September 29, 2014

Guest column: Leading a conversation about Montana’s energy future

Last week Gov. Bullock started an important conversation on Montana’s energy future when he released a new report prepared by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The report outlines five scenarios for how the state could meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed carbon emissions reductions for 2030. The five scenarios take different paths to arriving at EPA’s proposed emissions rate for Montana, but all of the scenarios include increasing renewable energy, an important acknowledgement of the positive role renewable energy can play in supporting our economy and reducing emissions.

None of the scenarios involve shutting down existing coal facilities in Montana, though Washington and Oregon consumers’ unease with consuming coal energy continues to cast uncertainty on the future of Colstrip.

The report highlights the critical role renewable energy development will play in the meeting EPA’s carbon emissions reductions. The five scenarios contemplated by DEQ include increasing renewable energy generation in the state anywhere from 63 to 168 percent by 2030.

That kind of focus is appropriate.

Montana ranks second in the United States for wind energy potential, but only a fraction of our wind resource has been developed. Montana currently ranks 21st in the nation for installed capacity, behind our top wind potential peer states. Even when compared to our neighboring states, Montana lags behind. North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho have all installed more wind energy than Montana.

It’s not too late for Montana to catch up.

Before EPA’s latest rules, the Western Electricity Coordinating Council already expected at least 6,000 megawatts of coal energy to retire across the West by 2024. In Washington and Oregon alone we know more than 2,000 megawatts of coal will retire by 2025.

The energy from those power plant retirements will need to be replaced. By focusing on developing our wind resource, Montana could be among the states that answers consumers’ demand for cleaner power. Texas for instance has already installed more than 12,000 megawatts of wind energy and has another 5,000 megawatts under construction, assisted by their focus on building the transmission infrastructure necessary to attract wind development. The scenarios in the DEQ’s report for Montana all assume that proposed transmission upgrades between Montana and Washington designed to export Montana wind move forward, but the state will need to take an active role in assuring that happens. So too the state should seriously consider what other infrastructure improvements or policies might further attract and facilitate wind development.

Capturing this market opportunity is important for Montana’s economic success. The existing 650 megawatts of wind power in Montana has brought in over $1.6 billion of capital investment, created more than 100 good-paying permanent jobs, and pays millions every year in tax dollars to rural Montana counties. But it’s only a tiny fraction of our potential. By focusing on a tangible plan to bring our wind to market Montana can place the only sure bet there is, that Montana and the region will use more wind and solar energy.

Distributed renewable energy and energy efficiency are also poised to make big contributions to reducing the state’s carbon footprint. Montana’s energy efficiency potential is nearly as limitless as our wind potential, and programs to capture that potential have the additional benefit of keeping hard earned money in Montanans’ pockets. Distributed energy, like rooftop solar panels, have much the same effect as energy efficiency and the falling cost of solar energy is making the investment attractive for many.

The final regulations from the EPA, and the ultimate compliance pathway selected by the state, won’t exactly match the report DEQ has circulated for comment. But the DEQ report does a good job of identifying some of Montana’s best and most exciting energy opportunities. Regardless of where the EPA rules end up, Gov. Bullock has started a much-needed conversation about our energy future. Going forward, the conversation should focus on how to make Montana’s clean energy opportunities a reality.

Jeff L. Fox is the Montana policy manager for Renewable Northwest, a nonprofit regional advocacy group promoting environmentally responsible renewable energy resources.


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