Change in the wind 

MT cooperative gears up for green power demand

Has capitalism gone too far when even Montana wind can be graded for its commercial value? For those who care about where their electricity comes from, the answer is no.

Sometime within the next six weeks, about 5,000 Montanans—those who have shown their concern for a clean environment by joining various “green” groups—will get a chance to buy their electricity from clean, green sources. The Montana Electricity Buying Cooperative (MEBC) was formed three years ago by the Montana Legislature as part of the overall law that deregulated the energy industry.

The cooperative will act as an energy broker, linking consumers with suppliers. Its immediate goal is to find enough Montana customers to create a demand for solar, wind, small hydroelectric dams or other clean, non-polluting source of electricity.

“Montana Power has indicated after it sold off its generation that it did not want to supply electricity,” says Jim Morton, an MEBC board member. “So that’s where the idea came from.”

In this new and uncertain age of electricity deregulation, there are currently no large-scale renewable sources of power being generated in Montana. One com-pany, Montana Wind Harness, was the successful bidder on a project to develop large-scale wind power in Montana. But wind power is only one part of a larger energy portfolio that has been challenged by various entities before Montana’s Public Service Commission (PSC).

While the PSC wades through the issue in a series of upcoming hearings, the MEBC has moved forward by contracting for green power with a young but already proven supplier, the Portland, Ore.-based Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF).

What started out as a partnership with the Bonneville Power Administration to conduct a watershed restoration program and develop new sources of renewable energy has grown into a full-fledged supplier of green energy. In 2000, BEF, then only two years old, developed the “Green Tag” program to supply clean sources of energy to places where it is currently not available, like Montana.

So who decides what is green and what’s not? “That’s usually a contentious issue,” says Morton. “That’s why hydro is not automatically a green source, because it can have a detrimental effect on the environment.” But according to BEF, the issue really isn’t all that contentious. The non-profit BEF buys green power that has been independently reviewed and endorsed by three environmental groups: the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Renewable Northwest Project and the Northwest Energy Coalition. An approved green power source finds it way from the sun—or wind or water—to your meter the same way fossil fuels do: through the existing northwest power grid.

The BEF invests the money it makes linking suppliers with buyers in developing more sources of renewable energy and in other environmentally friendly projects, says John Schneeberger, a Hamilton man contracted by MEBC to promote the organization. One example is a solar-powered well located in the Big Hole, which is designed to keep cattle away from streams where they can inflict damage on riparian areas.

Whether Montana will ever develop its own sources of green power remains unclear. Morton says people involved in the green power business suspect that the Montana Power Co., now NorthWestern, was never truly interested in the renewable energy side of its business. Speculation abounds that Montana Wind Harness, with its lack of experience but valuable political contacts, may have been chosen because it was doomed to fail.

“Right now we’re in a transition,” Morton says of MEBC, “because we don’t actually have anyone providing wind [power] in Montana.”

Regardless of the politics of green energy, there is plenty of supply in Montana. “If you look at a map of the west,” Morton says, “Montana has specific sites” perfect for wind power generation. As anyone who has ever visited eastern Montana knows, there are plenty of kilowatts in them thar hills.

In fact, says Morton, Montana doesn’t have just any old type of wind, but “commercial-grade wind,” perfect for harnessing and dumping into the greater electricity grid, and complementary to ranching and farming. BEF knows exactly where its power comes from. The organization then tells its brokers, like MEBC how those renewable energy producers are generating their energy and how much. “They’ll buy from existing sources and will keep involved in what’s going on [in the renewable energy business],” Morton says. “If there’s a project going up, these guys are right there, trying to buy [power from] it.”

Schneeberger says the Legislature, by requiring a percentage of electricity to come from renewable resources, may not have expected that far-flung Montanans would actually take lawmakers up on it. “Part of the conceit of all this is that consumers can take part in it,” Schneeberger says.

But convincing thousands of homeowners and small business owners to “spontaneously get together with their neighbors” and work up enough demand to get the attention of a traditional power supplier may be unrealistic, he says. That’s where the MEBC comes in, and why the Green Tag program will eventually become a viable option.

When the mailings go out next month, interested Montana power consumers can sign up for a $40 fee. That money is invested in BEF’s renewable energy development program and watershed protection projects. It also provides consumers with a percentage of green power that’s added to the traditional fossil fuels they’re using now.

Consumers can literally wield the power, he says. But he adds, “We need to show there’s a demand for green power in Montana. You need both ends of it, supply and demand.”

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