By Martin Kidston
It was last September when the city of Missoula approved a contract with a local company to prepare a solar roadmap – a $15,000 plan to give the municipality more control over the cost and supply of its electricity.
In the coming months, it’s just one of the measures Chase Jones plans to bring forward as the city works to further reduce its greenhouse gas emissions before 2017 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2025.
“There are a couple of projects I’m working on and hope to bring forward in the near future,” said Jones, the city’s energy conservation coordinator. “More and more people are seeing first hand the urgency of addressing climate change. People are also realizing more and more that it’s the responsible and logical thing to do.”
Despite modest growth in municipal government over the last six years, the city cut its greenhouse gas emissions 11 percent over a baseline inventory conducted in 2008. The city’s Energy Conservation and Climate Action Plan, released in 2013, had sought a 10 percent reduction by 2015.
Surpassing the first benchmark represented a milestone for the city, which has implemented a number of measures in recent years to shave emissions. It recently installed a $1.1 million system at the wastewater treatment plant to convert methane gas into energy, and it has made basic efficiency upgrades to city-owned buildings.
Yet despite the upgrades, the city is on the verge of taking over management of several large, energy-consuming operations, including Mountain Water Co., Fort Missoula Regional Park and EKO Compost, which the City Council agreed to purchase last week for $1.2 million.
Even without the addition of the three entities, the city consumed roughly 13 million kilowatt hours of electricity last year and nearly 240,000 Therms of natural gas. Finding a 19-percent reduction amid additional growth won’t be easy.
“With Mountain Water, there will be lots of studies on ways to retrofit the system, and a lot of those have already been identified in the process of taking it under the city’s operational control,” Jones said. “It looks for a study in efficiency and conservation, and hopefully renewables as well.”
Jones sees opportunities to retrofit Mountain Water with modern, efficient systems to reduce the carbon impact of the city’s newest division. He also says Fort Missoula Regional Park was designed at the drawing board with a limited carbon footprint – or as limited as possible for a 156-acre park and athletic complex that requires watering, mowing, lights and other maintenance.
The process that went into designing the new park wasn’t unlike that behind the Park Place garage on Front Street. It too was designed and constructed with efficiency in mind, Jones said. Because of it, the city saw it’s power usage increase over 2008 by only 14 percent.
“We’ll cross off and celebrate the strategies we’ve implemented – the successes we’ve had and the progress we’ve made,” Jones said. “But there will also be a chance to add in new opportunities presented with growth. I feel the plan and the challenges are presenting themselves exactly the way we were thinking.”
The 2008 baseline inventory conducted by the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program placed the city’s municipal emissions that year at 11,540 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.
Released five years later, the city’s original Energy Conservation and Climate Action plan called for a 10 percent reduction by 2015 and a 30 percent cut by 2017, with carbon neutrality following by 2025.
But achieving each subsequent benchmark is likely to grow more difficult in a growing city, something Jones does not dispute. However, he believes the city is up for the challenge, one he likened to a 1960s moonshot.
“I feel like the city of Missoula, and Missoula as a community, has this track record of realizing what’s important,” said Jones. “They’re not afraid to set goals, then they roll up their sleeves and figure it out. That’s what we’re going to have to continue to do.”
As the city assumes operational management of Mountain Water, Fort Missoula Regional Park and EKO Compost, Jones said the task force will likely revisit the city’s climate action plan. While the group is expected to honor the plan’s original goals, it may also set new ones.
Among them, Jones believes it’s time to take a second look at the city’s buildings and facilities in the context of new technology and new financing opportunities. The path ahead may also look for policy changes that include developing high-performance building standards for future renovations and growth.
Following the “solar roadmap” developed by Solar Plexus – the Missoula firm contracted by the city last September – could also come into play, as well as analyzing the city’s fleet of vehicles.
“We can take a similar look at our fleet and pieces of equipment, and adopt a process to ensure that we’re thoughtful about right-sizing our fleet,” said Jones. “Hopefully, it’s migrating more toward hybrid and electric vehicles, which have lower emissions and make sense for a lot of reasons.”
While climate change remains a political football in Washington, D.C., the city has accepted the science as fact, as have most Missoula residents. Jones believes the need is urgent and the time is now.
The city, he added, must lead by example.
“We’re working to be responsible with taxpayer money,” he said. “We want clean air and clean water, and we want healthy, happy people. That’s the kind of planet and humanity I think we can all resonate with.
“Whatever kind of debate you want to engage in, those bigger, broader reasons resonate with people more and more, especially when they’re seeing some of these impacts of climate change.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org