Sustainable Missoula: Solar is key to a cleaner, brighter future

A residential solar system on a garage in Missoula. (Abby Huseth)

With everything going on in the world right now, it can be hard to get our bearings. The frantic countdown to the upcoming election; coronavirus numbers rising in Montana; and on top of that, the climate crisis has not gone away. In fact, September 2020 was the hottest on record.

Yet in the midst of these challenging times, there are some big bright spots. Public engagement on climate issues is higher than ever. The most recent data from the Yale’s Six Americas survey shows that over half of Americans are either alarmed or concerned about the climate crisis, compared to only 18% that are doubtful or dismissive – with a huge shift in the last 5 years. Sixty-eight percent of voters consider climate change important in how they vote in the 2020 elections.

And this week, a new report from the International Energy Agency’s influential World Energy Outlook confirmed that solar is now the cheapest form of power and projects there will be 43% more solar by the year 2040 than it expected just two years ago.

These are encouraging trends, but they can feel abstract and disconnected from our daily reality. How can we bring it down to the backyard level, and take part in building our clean energy future, here and now?

Rooftop solar energy is one shining example of how to create ripples of change. October might seem like a strange time of year to talk about solar energy in Montana, but fall can be a great season to install solar, or to start planning for the spring installation season.

Besides practical considerations, growing access to solar is a direct way to speed up the broader transition to renewable energy. In terms of sheer numbers, the more of us that produce our own clean power, the more it reduces the amount of clean electricity needed to replace current fossil fuel sources. According to a 2016 NREL report on solar potential, if everyone in Montana who could go solar did, we could meet over a quarter of our state’s energy needs – nothing to sneeze at! Interestingly, if you install solar, your neighbors are more likely to as well.

And more solar on homes and businesses can also pave the way for broader policy change. We often think of it the other way around, but as Annie Lowrey argues in a recent article about the interplay between individual and systemic change, “Generally, research indicates that laws and regulations often work better when they reflect what a populace is already doing or how it is already changing, rather than trying to force a populace to change.”

If you own a roof (or space for a ground-mounted system) and have ever thought about going solar, now is a great time to seriously consider it. The process can seem confusing, but it’s actually quite simple! That’s why we’re hosting a virtual Solar Happy Hour at 4pm on Wednesday, October 21, where you can get all your questions answered about the steps to take, financing options, tax credits (there’s still time before the end of the year!) and more. Head here for more information and to join the conversation via Zoom.

We know not everyone can take advantage of rooftop solar, and there’s lots of work to do to make access to renewable energy more equitable. Here in Missoula, rooftop solar will be a key pathway to reaching our community’s goal of 100% Clean Electricity by 2030. Local government and community groups are working together on creative solutions to boost adoption of solar on new and existing residences (both owner-occupied and rentals) and businesses in the months and years to come.

If solar is not in the cards for you right now, there are still ways you can support solar in Montana through advocacy. Our friends at MREA (who are co-hosting next week’s happy hour) always remind us that voting in the Public Service Commission race is one critical way to support solar.

Many people don’t realize how influential this position is for energy development in Montana (see: MontanaRenewables.org/PSC). The PSC has influence over everything from energy rates for rooftop solar to how much renewable energy a utility should bring into its portfolio. Unfortunately, this ‘down ballot’ race gets skipped all too often when filling out ballots. If you want to see more solar in Montana, pay attention to the PSC.

When it comes to huge challenges like climate change, it can be hard to find the sweet spot where taking action is both accessible and meaningful, and where our individual efforts can influence systemic change. Going solar definitely fits that bill. Join us next Wednesday to keep the conversation going, and share the invitation with friends and family. Together, we can build the foundation for a cleaner, brighter future.

Abby Huseth is the Outreach Director at Climate Smart Missoula. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

With COVID-19 community events have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

October 13, 20, 27. Montana PSC virtual Public Hearings on NorthWestern Energy’s proposed coal purchase. 4 – 8 p.m. Pick your date! To learn more or participate, RSVP to the Sierra Club.

October 17. Rattlesnake Creek Revegetation. Sign up for a shift to dig willows for replanting.

October 17. Bee Hive Health & Winterization Workshop with Missoula Urban Demonstration Project. 10 am to noon. Info here.

October 21. How to Go Solar Happy Hour zoom panel with Climate Smart Missoula, Montana Renewable Energy Association & friends. 4pm. More info and zoom link here.

Oct 22. Addressing Climate Change through Food Sovereignty. UM hosts Patrick Yawakie of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Climate Change Steering Committee. 5:30 pm via Zoom.

Through October. It’s still farmer’s market season! The markets look different this year to protect public health, but both the Missoula Farmer’s Market (at the XXXXs) and the Clark Fork Market are happening. Check their websites for more details. CFAC also has a great list of local food resources for consumers.

Now through November 3. Work to elect climate leaders. Vote FOR the Mountain Line Mill Levy. And make sure you have a plan to vote!

Find more activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar.