With a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2035, Missoula County is moving to complete an energy audit of its two largest facilities, and it approved a $75,000 contract with a national consultant to complete the work.

The agreement with McKinstry Essention LLC will include a review of the county detention center and courthouse, and offer recommendations for both savings and improvements.

“The largest contributor to the county's greenhouse gas emissions is our buildings and facilities,” said Diana Maneta, the county's conservation and energy coordinator. “To achieve that goal is most certainly going to require using energy more efficiently in those buildings and facilities.”

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.

“The first step is an investment grade audit, meaning an in-depth energy audit of the buildings to identify the measures to be potentially included in a performance contract, as well as the savings that would go along with those costs,” said Maneta.

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

The tool also allows local government to pay back the cost of those improvements over time through the savings on their utility bill. Those saving are guaranteed by the energy services company.

“This is such a great thing from an energy efficiency standpoint, but also from a fiscal responsibility standpoint,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “The cost of the improvements we're making are made up through the savings they generate, and they're guaranteed. It's such a good deal for us. It really moves us forward toward meeting our goals.”

After completing the energy audit, McKinstry will provide the county with an energy performance contract, which would include a list of recommended steps the county could take to save energy and cut emissions.

If the county decides to proceed with the performance contract, the cost of the $75,000 energy audit would be rolled into the contract and financed. If the county decides not to proceed, it would pay McKinstry the full cost of the audit in one lump sum.

“At that time, we can do a financial analysis and see if it's cheaper for us to borrow on a tax-exempt basis and then roll the energy grade audit into our own financing, or we have the alternative of letting (McKinstry) finance it and pay for it through the guaranteed savings,” said Andrew Czorny, the county's chief financial officer.

The energy audit marks the latest step taken by the county to pursue its goals of carbon neutrality.

With parallel goals of addressing the climate crisis and reducing carbon emissions, the city and county of Missoula, along with the cities of Bozeman and Helena, formally adopted a joint agreement last month to work with NorthWestern Energy on developing a green tariff.

Together they contracted Energy Strategies in Salt Lake City to aid in the process.

“Government oftentimes gets criticized for doing a lot of planning and not as much implementation,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “This (energy audit) is a step toward actually implementing some tangible work on the ground that will further our energy conservation and sustainability goals.”