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Missoula city, county leaders explore renewable energy options at D.C. workshop

Missoula Electric Coop teamed up with KettleHouse Brewing Co. for a large rooftop solar project at the brewery’s new Bonner plant last summer. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula County and the city of Missoula will soon sign a joint resolution outlining the steps they’ll take to eliminate the use of fossil-fuel energy over the next few decades.

The 100 percent Clean Energy Resolution will be based on guidelines and tools that a few representatives learned about while attending a workshop last week in Washington, D.C.

County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, City Councilman Bryan von Lossberg and two community sustainability coordinators represented the Missoula area at a weeklong workshop attended by more than two dozen U.S. communities and focused on how to get more renewable energy from large-scale, off-site clean energy projects.

Montana had the largest presence at the event, with representatives from Bozeman also attending.

Strohmaier deemed it a valuable learning experience. One of the new concepts he learned about was “additionality,” where the focus is on adding more renewable energy facilities directly, rather than “shuffling the deck” by using fossil fuels but buying carbon credits from other places that are generating renewable energy.

In Montana, it’s harder to have additionality and Missoula can’t use some of the off-site concepts because of the way utilities are regulated here. Regulation means communities aren’t allowed to buy energy directly on the open market – they have to go through utilities such as NorthWestern Energy and Missoula Electric Coop.

That leaves Montana towns with fewer options.

It would help if the Legislature would pass laws increasing the net-metering cap for larger solar or wind facilities. Then additionality would kick in because companies and communities could build large banks of solar panels or wind turbines to add large amounts of renewable energy to the grid.

But NorthWestern Energy opposes increased net-metering because it means having to credit those who produce renewable energy. So that won’t happen soon, and Missoula won’t wait.

“We’re looking at what can we do now, unilaterally, in concert with utilities. We need to have some more internal conversations on our end and give it a little more thought,” Strohmaier said. “But the resolution is the next step. Then with that kind of big vision and goal in mind, then we’ll decide how we’re going to achieve that. I think we came away from the week with some good ideas of how we might do that.”

The city could get more ideas when representatives attend another workshop in Denver, Colo., at the end of the month, this time focused on “on-site” energy, such as rooftop solar panels.

The city and county haven’t decided when they can meet the goal of 100 percent renewable energy. It may be 2030, which is a critical year for reaching a target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to cut the use of fossil fuels by half.

“It may be 2035. That’s still a pretty aggressive timeframe,” Strohmaier said. “But it needs to be. We realize climate change is an extremely pressing concern that we need to devote energy and resources toward. Change is coming whether we like it or not. The sooner we can start investing in renewables, so much the better.”

The workshop was part of a new program, American Cities Climate Challenge Renewables Accelerator, aiming at helping cities meet or beat their renewable energy goals. More than 100 cities have committed to increasing their use of renewable energy. The program is sponsored by the World Resources Institute, the Rocky Mountain Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

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