Keeping focus on its clean electricity goals and carbon reduction, Missoula County is moving forward with a number of new initiatives, from pursuing Montana's first green tariff to a new policy on energy efficient buildings.

It's also watching what county commissioners are describing as an “ambiguous” state Senate bill that could put the brakes on local efforts to pursue carbon reductions and efficiency.

Earlier this year, the city and county of Missoula, along with the cities of Bozeman and Helena, formally adopted a joint agreement to work with NorthWestern Energy on developing Montana's first green tariff.

All four governments have established goals of achieving 100% clean electricity by 2035, and they've all identified a green tariff as an important tool in reaching that goal.

“Green tariff's are an increasingly common mechanism by which customers of regulated utilities have the option to buy power from newly developed renewable energy sources through a special rate,” said Diana Maneta, the energy conservation and sustainability coordinator for Missoula County. “A green tariff is not a tax. It's a voluntary rate for electricity that you can chose to pay on your energy bill.”

The four governments and NorthWestern Energy will work with Energy Strategies out of Utah in developing the tariff. Missoula County will serve as the contractor and contribute $20,000 to $100,000 contract cost.

The three other governments will also contribute to the effort.

“The intent is a collaborative process with NorthWestern,” said Maneta. “The goal is to end up with a green tariff that's mutually supported by NorthWestern and our four local governments. NorthWestern has been supportive and thought having some additional expertise at the table could be helpful.”

Also this year, Missoula County signed a $75,000 contract with McKinstry Essention LLC to complete an energy audit of its two largest facilities – the county jail and county courthouse.

An energy performance contract represents what Maneta described as another “tool in the toolbox,” one that's been authorized by the state. It enables local governments to enter into a contract with an energy services company, like McKinstry, to make efficiency improvements.

Taking that further, the county this week approved its first Energy Efficient Building Policy, establishing requirements for any new construction or major renovations of a county-owned building. Maneta said the policy includes requirements for “energy use intensity,” which is based upon the building type and its use.

“That's to take into account that different types of buildings that by their nature, by their function, are going to use different amounts of energy,” Maneta said. “It doesn't make sense to set an across-the-board energy-use standard, but have that be relative to the type of building, based upon how much better than the national average we require our buildings to be.”

Missoula County commissioners hold a public hearing before the pandemic. They've been joined by cities of Missoula, Bozeman and Helena in pursuing 100% clean electricity by 2035. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)
Missoula County commissioners hold a public hearing before the pandemic. They've been joined by cities of Missoula, Bozeman and Helena in pursuing 100% clean electricity by 2035. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

The new policy also requires the county to complete a feasibility assessment for on-site renewable energy and electrification. It states that such measures must be pursued whenever feasible.

If full electrification is not feasible at the time a building is built or renovated, the policy requires that the building be designed to accommodate future electrification. Maneta said the new policy replaces the county's old “green policy” adopted in 2010.

“The idea is to replace that with something that's pretty clear cut and has those concrete targets,” she said. “It's one piece of many that are needed to achieve our carbon neutrality goals.”

Both the city and the county of Missoula signed a resolution stating their intent to achieve carbon neutrality in government operations by a certain year. They also completed an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, which was needed to set a baseline measure as they work to reduce their emissions.

The county’s study found that its operations emitted more than 7,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2016. Reducing that to zero will take time and investment.

Yet one bill introduced in the 2021 Legislature could make those carbon reduction and green energy efforts more challenging, if not impossible. Senate Bill 257 would “prohibit local governments from enacting certain fees, taxes or penalties regarding carbon use.”

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier described the bill as ambiguous and testified against it this week. It also flies contrary to national trends, such as that in Oregon, where Gov. Kate Brown set statewide carbon reduction goals to targets of 45% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Montana has taken no such action, through Missoula, Bozeman and Helena are working in that direction. They don't want the state Legislature, which has proven to be carbon friendly, to interfere as they try to move into the new energy economy.

“The bill is so ambiguous and poorly written, even contrary to the sponsor's intent, that it could preclude us from doing any energy efficient upgrades that are contemplated in our policy,” Strohmaier said. “But we'll continue to fight that. This is an example of us leading by example.”