Missoula Current

(Missoula Current) In an effort that has taken several years to accomplish and saw multiple partners at the table, the city and county of Missoula on Monday night adopted the term sheet for a new green power program – the first of its kind in Montana.

The deal, made in partnership with the city of Bozeman and NorthWestern energy, could help Missoula increase its level of clean electricity by as much as 10%.

The program is entirely voluntary and includes a number of firewalls for all parties as the first phase unfolds, so long as it's approved by the Montana Public Service Commission in the months ahead.

“We've been at this for quite some time,” said Caroline Bean, the county's climate action specialist. “It really started back in October in 2018, when citizens of Missoula came together asking that if we set a goal of 100% of clean electricity, could we even get there.”

It turned out to be feasible, according to a report published shortly after. In April 2019, both the city and county adopted a goal of 100% clean electricity by 2030. The Montana Public Service Commission then directed NorthWetern Energy to initiate a stakeholder process to explore a green tariff as part of a settlement agreement.

The push to create and adopt the tariff was later memorialized with NorthWestern in 2020. Since then, Helena has dropped out of the agreement citing staff time but has remained invested, according to local officials.

As it stands, roughly 60% of the electricity that feeds Missoula is powered by clean energy. But that remains short of the city and county's goals of 100% clean electricity. If ratified through the political process, the program could bring Missoula's level of clean electricity to 70% just in the first phase.

Other phases would follow, and it's expected that over time, other partners will come to the table in Montana wanting to participate.

“This is a viable option for us to move forward on our clean electricity goals,” said Bean.

As approved on Monday, the term sheet will develop a new renewable energy project in the state, create accessible and attractive rates, and ensure the program doesn't negatively impact non-participating customers, or “no cost shifting.”

The renewable project would include 50 MW of power for the first phase with storage somewhere in Montana. Other phases would likely follow, officials said. All NorthWestern Energy customers could participate in the program over the life of its depreciating value.

“We want to make sure that as many customer classes as possible can sign up for the program,” Bean said. “While it's Missoula and Bozeman leading the way on this phase of it, any local government, any commercial or industrial customer across the state of Montana, will be able to participate, should we be successful. There's also a provision for residential customers to participate, should they live in a jurisdiction that has opted in.”

Aspects of the program remain somewhat complicated, such as the fixed cost to generate and transport electricity versus the floating cost. The floating cost is based upon the market value of the electricity produced, even if it's not immediately used.

Break it down and those who don't want to participate won't pay for the program, officials said.

“The cost of the project will be incorporated in the subscription rate,” said Evora Glenn, the city's climate action specialist. “If you don't want to sign up, you're not going to be responsible for any part of the cost for this project.”

The program has taken years to hash out and some of those who started working on it are no longer here to celebrate its adoption in Missoula. Former City Council member Bryan Von Lossberg spoke in favor of the term sheet's adoption on Monday.

Elephants, he said, are eaten one bite at a time. Creating Montana's first green tariff is something of an elephant, participants said.

“It's an important part of meeting our climate and energy commitments,” he said. “A viable green power program is a substantial tool. It's a difference maker. It moves the needle in a meaningful way. Alone, its' not enough to meet our goals, but it's an important tool alongside many other efforts.”

Amy Cilimburg, executive director of Climate Smart Missoula, said the effort took time, but tenacity and partnerships paid off. Representatives of NorthWestern Energy also expressed support for the measure, which is vital for its success.

Cyndee Fang, vice president of regulatory affairs for NorthWestern, described it as a collaborate effort.

“I can't tell you how excited I am to be here today with this term sheet for this program,” said Fang. “I can't wait to continue the partnership and the next steps to move this program forward and make it a reality.”