State on the cusp of new energy future, governor says

IMG_5259
Diane Maneta, executive director of the Montana Renewable Energy Association, left, and Missoula Mayor John Engen, joined Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday as he detailed his new energy blueprint. Not pictured is Missoula Federal Credit Union CEO Jack Lawson. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

Looking to guide the state’s energy future toward a more intentional outcome, Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday brought his new energy blueprint to Missoula, where he detailed his goals to create a diverse energy portfolio while also cutting back on power consumption through improved efficiency.

Bullock highlighted his goals to double solar energy development over the next decade, increase weatherization efforts for low-income households, and establish a $5 million revolving fund to help schools complete energy conservation projects.

The blueprint also maintains the importance of coal as part of the state’s energy package and engages the U.S Department of Energy to review transmission opportunities for downstream delivery.

The governor unveiled the plan the day before in Helena.

“As we chart an energy future, what we try to reflect is a blueprint that is balanced, is responsible, sets new goals and offers new ideas to keep us on track and prepare for the future,” he said. “We really are on the cusp in Montana.”

Bullock, who was joined by Missoula business and industry experts, promoted the blueprint while standing in the Payne Family Native American Center on the University of Montana Campus.

The location wasn’t chosen by accident. The center was the first building on campus to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards when it opened in 2010.

Conservation should play a large part of the state’s energy future, Bullock said.

“For energy efficiency – our cheapest form of energy savings – we’re setting a goal to reduce overall electricity energy usage by 10 percent by 2025 while continuing to grow this economy,” the governor said.

The plan also looks to complete weatherization needs for low-income households by the same year. Bullock was in Missoula earlier this month to better understand the city’s weatherization needs.

“The backlog is significant,” he said. “This is an opportunity to create jobs while allowing individuals, especially in our lower incomes, to have a little more money in their pockets.”

Bullock, who crossed the state meeting with experts in wind, solar and coal, modeled his energy blueprint off his popular Main Street Montana Project.

That effort also brought experts together from across the state to implement a state-wide business plan. The new energy blueprint proposes the creation of an interim working group of stakeholders to study the state’s energy infrastructure needs.

“Our energy future really should be shaped in part by design, not just happenstance,” Bullock said. “We will continue to look for creative ways to work with the private sector to finance projects by putting private capital to work for smaller scale (utilities).”

The governor’s plan gives a nod to alternative energy and proposes doubling solar development over the next decade. While rooftop solar currently accounts for less than 1 percent of Montana’s electrical needs, industry experts believe it could account for 28 percent in the near future.

“To help solar achieve this potential, we do need the right finances and policies in place,” said Diane Maneta, executive director of the Montana Renewable Energy Association. “The plan includes a goal to double Montana’s solar by 2025. I’m confident we can get there. In fact, I think we can get there well before 2025.”

Maneta said solar applications are booming nationally, providing more jobs than natural gas and three times as many jobs as coal mining. The solar industry continues to grow due to a decrease in costs.

The cost of rooftop solar has fallen by half since 2008, allowing applications to increase 30 percent each year. Three electrical coops in western Montana continue to grow as well, and contracts have been signed to complete six utility-scale solar arrays providing up to 3 megawatts of power each, Maneta said.

“Achieving this goal will reduce Montana’s power bills, make our homes and building’s more comfortable, and put Montanans to work as technicians to make this happen,” Maneta said.

The governor’s plan also has the support of financial backers, including the Missoula Federal Credit Union.

Jack Lawson, president and CEO of Missoula Federal, said his institution is looking to behave in a corporately responsible manner while directing investments into areas that can make a difference.

“The challenge for us is where we might put more of our resources – more of our $440 million balance sheet to work affecting change and having social impact,” said Lawson. “We see in the governor’s blueprint a lot of areas where we can do just that.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com