Bullock brings Montana energy tour to Missoula to explore efficiency

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Gov. Steve Bullock, center, chats with Jim Morton of the Montana Human Resources Development Council and Missoula resident Danette McDonald in Missoula on Wednesday. Bullock visited McDonald’s home before the second leg of his Montana energy tour. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

Seventeen energy and housing experts from across western Montana met with Gov. Steve Bullock in Missoula on Wednesday to help plan the state’s energy future as it pertains to efficiency and ways to incentivize conservation.

The meeting began at the home of a Missoula resident who is receiving state-funded upgrades to make her home more efficient. The discussion that followed across town marks the second stage of Bullock’s Montana energy roundtable tour, which aims to explore the state’s energy future.

Bullock said Montana must remain a leading energy producer while it also plans for a changing future.

“We have to be prepared to take action in addressing climate change, and thoughtfully thinking about what our energy future in the state is going to be,” Bullock said. “The future of what our energy potential is is shifting under our feet, and we have to be working together to figure out what that potential is.”

Ideas presented by leaders in energy, housing and efficiency included increasing public awareness as it pertains to reducing consumption and a new program popular in other states known as Property Assessed Clean Energy Financing.

Recent steps taken by the Montana Public Service Commission came under criticism as well, as did the reduction in funding designed to help low-income households improve the efficiency of their home. Most agreed that energy efficiency is recognized as the cheapest energy source the state has.

“We’re at a crossroads – a crossroads many states have perhaps gone beyond,” said Diego Rivas with the Northwest Energy Coalition. “There’s a long way to go and a lot to be done. Energy efficiency is the cheapest and cleanest energy source we have.”

Rivas said the state was recently given low marks by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy – 31st in the nation. What’s more, he said, the Human Resource Development Council in Missoula faces a backlog of eight years due to a lack of funding.

“We’re seeing funding for the Low Income Energy Assistance Program declining as the need is increasing,” Rivas said. “We need to get the state involved in providing funds, making sure we can increase funding for these organizations so more low-income homes are weatherized.”

Rivas also said the state faces an uphill climb in pursuing energy efficiency at the regulatory level. While utilities have shown progress in pursuing efficiency, he said, the Montana Public Service Commission has not been an ally in the effort.

“Unfortunately, we’re having some wrong signals sent by our regulators to our regulated utilities on recovering the lost revenues from energy efficiency investment,” Rivas said. “They’re giving utilities all the disincentive in the world to further move way from energy efficiency.”

Pat Corcoran, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for NorthWestern energy agreed. He said the company sees value in investing in energy upgrades for low-income households, though the state is backing off incentives to help continue the effort.

“We’re interested in providing energy efficiency opportunities to all our customers, and we have been since the late 1970s,” Corcoran said. “The fact of the matter is, while it’s certainly the lowest cost unit of electricity you can generate for purchase in lieu of the alternatives, it comes at a cost. It’s a cost that comes under the review of the PSC.”

Corcoran said NorthWestern spends roughly $13 million annually on programs aimed at boosting energy efficiency. But for every unit a customer saves, he added, the power company loses one unit of revenue.

That revenue goes toward recovering the fixed costs of NorthWestern’s delivery systems. Corcoran called it a problem and said the utility was being penalized by its efforts to improve customer efficiency.

“When we think about energy efficiency and these kinds of things, we need to have good public policies,” Corcoran told Bullock. “If we’re going to promote energy efficiency like you’re talking about, we need to do something about the policies.”

Earlier in the day, Bullock visited the home of Danette McDonald, who had several cracked windows, a failing furnace and a leaking door. While McDonald works a full-time job, she remains on limited means. Crews with the Human Resource Development Council completed the fixes using limited LIEAP funding.

Sixty percent of those who receive assistance in improving the efficiency of their homes have jobs, according to HRDC.

“As we envision what our energy future is, we know that energy conservation is the lowest cost thing we can do,” Bullock said. “Not only that, we can provide some incredible opportunities to save folks like Danette some money while providing some good jobs. We have significant unmet needs, so how do we help address those needs?”

Bullock’s statewide energy roundtable tour includes stops in Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls and Colstrip.