Saying they'd move forward with or without NorthWestern Energy, the city and county of Missoula on Monday unanimously approved an agreement with the state's monopoly utility in a drive to achieve 100% clean electricity.

While the memorandum of understanding with the utility doesn't detail the steps to get there, it inks a baseline agreement to pursue utility-scale renewable energy, improve efficiency and conservation, and modernize the electrical grid.

Economic development is last among the guiding principles while reducing greenhouse gas emissions stands first, followed by equity. An implementation plan is expected by December.

“These are the pieces we think will be needed in our partnership with NorthWestern Energy to transition to 100% clean electricity,” said Chase Jones, the city's energy and conservation coordinator. “The new utility scale renewables will be key here. While there aren't a lot of details in the MOU, it's specific enough the parties will be able to refer back to it and hold each other accountable to action and implementation.”

The guiding principles include a push to fairly implement the agreement, ensuring no burden is placed on any particular group. Costs of implantation will be shared, and it will enable NorthWestern to recover any capital investment.

The memorandum also looks to avoid shifting additional costs to existing energy customers, unless those costs are approved by the Montana Public Service Commission, which regulates the utility.

“The implementation of this MOU will provide opportunity to boost the state and local economy and support the retention, growth and attraction of businesses through the innovation and investment in clean energy resources and tech that it will take for us to realize our 100% clean electricity goal,” said Jones.

Diana Maneta, the county's energy and conservation coordinator, said 95% of the electricity delivered to the Missoula urban area is purchased from NorthWestern Energy. Of that, roughly 60% comes from sources considered clean, including hydro, wind and solar.

Getting to 100% will require replacing the remaining 40% derived from fossil fuels.

“It could be accomplished by NorthWestern Energy's entire system becoming more clean, or by new clean electricity resources being built to supply Missoula customers specifically, or a combination of the two,” said Maneta.

However, Maneta said those resources must be new, not existing. The memorandum looks to avoid “taking credit” for more than Missoula's share of renewable energy sources while leaving other parts of the state powered by dirty fuel.

“The 100% clean electricity resolution is very clearly driven by the imperative to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Maneta. “Just taking credit for more existing renewable energy resources wouldn't accomplish that goal.”

Most described the agreement and its goals as lofty and said getting there will require more renewable energy, including utility-scale sources, community-scale sources and on-site renewables – all of which cost money.

The state's electricity sector is regulated, which doesn't allow the Missoula urban area to buy power from another provider, many of which are already shifting to cleaner sources.

“We buy it from our regulated monopoly utility,” said Maneta. “Recognizing this, our 100% clean electricity resolution supports our partnership with NorthWestern as one piece in achieving 100% clean electricity.”

Most callers on Monday were on board with the resolution, though some, including stockholders and rate payers, aired skepticism that NorthWestern would actually follow through with its side of the agreement in pursuit of a cleaner future.

Other regional energy providers have been more progressive in recent years in reducing their fossil fuel requirements in exchange for cleaner sources. But NorthWestern president and CEO Bob Rowe called the memorandum “a great opportunity” to work with the city's energy customers and consider its own future.

Rowe said the utility has slowly grown the amount of power generated from renewable sources and will continue to do so as opportunities allow.

“We've been putting together the template we can use to identify new resources to serve you,” said Rowe. “Our environmental stewardship goal is important to us. It's important in terms of what our portfolio looks like and our obligation to all our customers, but also in so many other things.”

The path forward won't be easy, said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

“There's work to be done, but simply trying the same thing while expecting different results won't be a recipe for success,” he said.