Emerald Cities 

Missoula explores ways to green up before the serious energy bills hit

A year from now, when utility contracts with Montana Power expire, utility bills are expected to roughly double. This means that everyone from single parents in one-bedroom apartments to church congregations to regional governments will be struggling to come up with funding to keep the lights on and the heat running. Barring some miracle from the Legislature, this means that the city of Missoula, for example, will have to come up with an extra two-thirds to three-quarters of a million dollars to pay its utility bills. “From an energy standpoint,” says Missoula Finance Director Brent Ramharter, “next year is when we reach the point of reality with rising costs for electricity and natural gas.”

What the city plans to do to meet these costs remains unclear. According to Ramharter, budget planning becomes more of a challenge as the city braces for utility bills that will hit the roof. “Right now, we’re budgeting for a lot of things only one year out. It’s going to be a huge hit, a huge energy problem when those contracts come due,” he predicts.

Meanwhile, Ramharter, Mayor Mike Kadas, and a host of other city officials have received an e-mail from the mid-sized Canadian city of Kitchener, Ontario. The e-mail outlines their wildly successful energy management program launched two decades ago that has reduced energy costs in all city-owned buildings. Since its inception the program has saved Kitchener taxpayers $9 million—a cool million in the past year alone—and projections that take into account the jump in power rates show that Kitchener will save close to $17 million by 2006. This deed was accomplished by taking a proactive look at the city’s energy needs; in other words, looking ahead to replace things like roofs and heating systems rather than waiting for the old ones to give out. This kind of forward thinking allows Kitchener to invest in things like state-of-the art boilers for their largest buildings, a move that in one building alone will save $1 million in natural gas costs over the 30-year life of the boiler.

None of this is lost on Bruce Bender, who manages Missoula’s municipal infrastructure, and is the first to concede that Missoula is not Kitchener. “It’s a process that takes years,” says Bender, noting that some of the buildings under his eye as public works director have undergone energy upgrades as a result of audits that were ordered a few years back. The effort, however, seems to lack the cohesiveness of the one undertaken in Kitchener, a fact Bender acknowledges as he recalls the way Missoula’s City Hall boilers were replaced. “They went out and had to be replaced right away,” notes Bender. “Luckily, it was spring, so we had a little bit of time to choose something that was more efficient. It’s a two-boiler system, one that for most of the time runs with only one of the boilers on, and the other one kicks in when it’s really cold. Still, it would have been nice to have six-months or a year to study the place and invest in something like what was done up there,” says Bender.

But there is little point—or time—to cry over already-wasted electricity. To its credit, Missoula has taken on energy-saving measures in many of its facilities: Switching off light bulbs and fixtures, putting heating systems on timers, and encouraging employees to be more energy conscious has given the city a head start in facing the looming crisis. Certainly, the fiscal wound of doubled energy costs promises to accelerate such efforts. However, the ease with which Missoula has not become as green as other cities will hurt more now that the day of utility reckoning is near. “What we tend to look at with these projects is how quickly the initial investment can be recovered,” explains Ramsharter. “If we find a project that will pay out in two or three years, then those are the ones we tend to jump on.”

But with Missoula already bracing itself for increased energy costs, the financing for energy efficiency dissipates quickly, making it so that the only projects the city can undertake are those that pay off relatively quickly.

Not that Missoula isn’t trying some longer term projects anyway. In March of 2001 Fire Station 4 began a demonstration solar project that provides auxiliary power for the station. The new photovoltaic system not only opens Station 4’s giant garage doors and powers essential functions during a power outage, it is also tied into the power grid, so that at peak production hours, the station’s electricity meter actually runs backwards, creating in effect, an energy credit for the city, what is commonly known as net metering. The project was funded with a $50,000 grant from Montana Power Company.

It’s an intriguing idea for Missoula County Public Schools interim Superintendent Larry Johnson. The school district that Johnson leads is as big a power consumer as the city buildings of Missoula, and the school’s funding situation is more bleak. Solar demonstration projects, while worthwhile undertakings, won’t meet the huge outlay of cash the district will require when their contract with MPC expires in July 2002. Unlike the city, which can raise funds through fees and taxes, the district’s funding is fixed until the Legislature meets again in 2003. “We certainly won’t rule out anything,” says Johnson, noting that the district has also undergone a recent energy audit and is retrofitting many buildings as quickly as money and time will allow. “But given the cost and the level of technology, it’s not very feasible for us to do just that,” says Johnson. “We’ll be addressing this issue with the school board in October, and coming up with a plan next year.”

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