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Bozeman Daily Chronicle
by: Jeff L. Fox, Guest Columnist
May 2, 2015

Renewable energy a challenge, opportunity for Montana

In 2013 the competition among resources to supply the world with electric energy may have tipped inexorably toward clean energy. That was the year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), when more new clean energy capacity was constructed to serve electric demand than all new fossil fuels resources combined, worldwide.

Going forward, “clean energy resources” (wind, solar, hydro and nuclear, according to BNEF’s definition) are expected to continue to accelerate their growth making up progressively more and more of new energy constructed each year.

Wind and solar energy combined were the largest segments of the “clean energy resources” added in 2013, and are expected to be the largest and fastest growing segments of clean energy resources going forward. That’s a huge accomplishment for an industry that wasn’t even on the world map 20 years ago. Smart policy, paired with technological improvements, new purchasing options for customers that reduce up-front costs, and experience with managing variable energy generation, has helped to drive down the cost of renewable energy and deploy renewables more confidently and effectively into power grids. Just this week, California set a new state solar peak, generating nearly 30 percent of its power from the sun at midday.

This shift in the world dynamics of energy is one Montana should internalize. As a net electricity exporter, it’s important for Montana to recognize and respond to fundamental shifts in the energy sector to maintain our position selling energy resources to the region, and supporting jobs and economic development at home.

Global statistics can tell us the story of the shift to renewables, and so can the actions underway in our own region.

For instance, the governor of California, leading the world’s eighth largest economy, just signed an executive action to cut California’s carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, on it’s way to achieving 80 percent reductions by 2050. To achieve this goal there’s no doubt California will need to rely more heavily on renewable energy in it’s electric mix, as well as make advancements in the heating and transportation sectors. Montana wind energy already serves some of California’s renewable energy demand, but more must be done if we hope to capture more of the market California’s carbon emissions goals are putting up for grabs.

While California is the leading the way, other states are not far behind. Oregon legislators considered a bill this session to require the phase out of the coal electricity it consumes over the next decade, and replace it with energy that is at least 90 percent cleaner as measured by carbon emissions. And Washington State is sending the most pointed message of all, as it’s Legislature considers a proposal that could result in the shut down of Colstrip 1 and 2 currently serving Puget Sound Energy’s customers. The public’s concern over the growing costs and risks of coal are signaling the transition to cleaner fuels.

Whether it’s through watching big global trends, or watching the Washington Legislature debate a bill with big implications for Colstrip, the message should be clear, we need to respond if we hope to maintain our electric energy exports.

Protectionist responses to shield Montana’s coal industry from the shifts underway in the our energy economy are understandable, but it’s not likely to position us for future success. We’re not just fighting a neighboring legislature, we are swimming up stream against a global shift in energy generation.

Admittedly the solutions to these problems are not easy, they likely involve vital infrastructure planning and renewed focus on modernizing our electric grid. But the messages should be clear enough, and the consequences large enough, that we should expect our policymakers to heed the signs and get to work on finding solutions. One forum where these issues are already being discussed is in the energy and utilities key industry network, convened through Gov. Bullock’s Main Street Montana Project. Policymakers and industry experts should be expected to do more to gain greater clarity on Montana’s energy challenges, and get to work enacting solutions that can benefit our local economy and environment.

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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