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Bozeman Daily Chronicle
October 18, 2011

Guest Column: Why we need utility-scale renewable energy

It seems almost everyone loves small-scale renewable energy, the rooftop solar panels and backyard wind turbines that help power residential homes.

Sure, some may scoff at the desire to take control of your own energy consumption. But by and large, most people will see it as your right to produce what you use. “More power to you” they’ll say, literally.

And small-scale renewables should enjoy the unanimous support of the public. They work, can be cost-effective, and homegrown energy solutions make a real difference.

But for all the good small-scale renewables do, the truth is that they are not enough. If the goal for our energy future is freedom from the price volatility of fossil fuels, economic investments that create jobs and contribute to healthier communities, and a significant reduction in greenhouse gases, we need utility-scale renewable energy production.

To illustrate this point, we can look at the community with the highest concentration of residential solar in the United States: Berkeley, Calif., where 2.6 percent of all homes have solar panels. For all we might say about the birthplace of the hippie movement, it is a truly admirable accomplishment. In fact, we should all aim to mimic their commitment to self-produced green energy. Yet even if we did rise to the Berkeley challenge and installed solar panels on 26 percent of American homes by 2030 (10 times Berkeley’s concentration!), we still wouldn’t meet even 15 percent of the nation’s energy demand.

Confronted with this fact, many conservation-minded Americans might rush to energy efficiency to make up the difference. And truly, energy efficiency is always where the conversation should start. The gains we can make in efficiency are enormous and generally the most cost-effective. But there is a limit to how far we can stretch a kilowatt hour, and even the most aggressive plans to increase our energy efficiency only promise to hold our energy demand flat over the next 20 years. Energy efficiency simply cannot meet our energy needs alone.

But in challenges there are also opportunities. For example, today nearly 36 percent of our energy nationwide comes from coal plants 30 years or older, many grossly inefficient and dangerously dirty. These plants need to be decommissioned or dramatically upgraded to meet our basic environmental standards, and expensive upgrades are often not economical when compared to new generating facilities, including renewables. Nor would upgrades alleviate the price and regulatory uncertainty of fossil-fuel energy for consumers. Even if we do all we can to reduce energy use and promote small-scale renewable energy, we still need to produce a tremendous amount over the next 20 years to replace these carbon-heavy coal plants in our energy portfolio.

To accomplish this task, utility scale renewable energy must meet a large portion of our future need.

For Montana, the build out of renewable infrastructure will likely mean large wind farms and high voltage transmission projects. Not by any means a wind turbine on every hilltop, or a transmission line on every ridge, but it does mean you might eventually see these projects more often than your likely infrequent drive through Judith Gap.

Like any form of development, renewable energy projects do have impacts on wildlife and communities, but the tremendous benefits of properly sited projects can preserve and protect Montana’s legacy of wildlife and wide-open working lands while adding significantly to our local economy through job creation and tax revenues.

Montana has a tremendous wind resource that can help the entire nation meet our energy needs and reduce the carbon emissions that are already having impacts on our wildlife, land and way of life. Now is the time for Montana, and the nation, to rethink how much energy we use, where it comes from, and how we can act now to achieve the safest, most sustainable future we can.


Jeff L. Fox is the Montana policy advocate for Renewable Northwest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the responsible development of renewable energy. Examples used in this column draw from the “Acres and Watts” report by Kevin Sweeney.

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