When Ed and Sue James first established the Sugar Loaf Wool Mill in 2000, near Hall, they were spending $600 a month on propane. The mill uses 700 to 900 gallons of hot water a day to wash raw wool. The cost of propane at the time was around 80 cents a gallon; it's rocketed to roughly $2.30 a gallon in the subsequent decade. Were the Sugar Loaf mill still relying on propane to heat its water, the bill now would be over $1,700.
But nine years ago, the Jameses saw an opportunity to cut their propane use by nearly two-thirds. These days, they pay an average of $575 a month. The rest they leave to an array of solar voltaic panels lining the southwest corner of their mill's rooftop. Sue, not one for a long explanation, sums up Sugar Loaf's solar water heating system: "It saves a lot on propane."
Ed and Sue James aren't the only ones along Montana Highway 1 to recognize the potential financial benefits of green technology. More than a dozen ranches south of Drummond now utilize solar-powered water pumping stations. Residents generate their own electricity with small-scale solar systems. The Philipsburg Public Schools installed a biomass boiler in 2004, and the town of Philipsburg sells electricity locally from a pair of municipally owned hydroelectric plants. Renewable energy has carved out a niche in the area.
Sarah Lesnar, the energy program manager for the Helena-based Alternative Energy Resources Organization, recently recognized that niche. She was putting together a string of public energy tours in western Montana and Philipsburg quickly landed on the list.
"There isn't a lot of hydro around the state, especially on that scale, and it's kind of unique that the city owns it," Lesnar explains. "I looked around and found that there's a bunch of solar down there, as well as the biomass boiler."
Philipsburg isn't the first Montana town that springs to mind when you're talking about renewable energy initiatives. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the area teemed with the kind of large- and small-scale mining activity that shaped much of western Montana. Thousands of individual prospectors and mining company workers descended on the Sapphire, Anaconda and Flint Creek mountain ranges, searching for everything from gold and silver to manganese and copper. The hills along the Pintler Scenic Loop are dotted with ghost towns and abandoned mine shafts, making the area a prime tourist destination. Philipsburg was named Montana's first Tourism Community of the Year, in 1998.
Yet as far back as the mid 1980s, eyes in Philipsburg had begun to turn toward renewable energy. Lee Tavenner, who owns the Missoula hydroelectric and solar installation company Solar Plexus, credits the area's rising interest in alternative energy in the past decade to the city's municipal hydroelectric operation. Since the plants went online in 1986, the town has shown its citizens that it's possible to generate one's own electricity. It's not solely about saving the planet, Tavenner says—it's also about saving money and gaining independence.
"There's a lot of people that are doing it for the environment and to be independent, but sometimes those are really different," Tavenner says. "Some people want to be independent but couldn't care less about the environment." That desire for energy autonomy has given rise to what Tavenner calls "preppers," or survivalists, people on the political far-right seeking to shed their dependence on utility companies.
There's a clear green element to the biomass boiler at the Philipsburg Public Schools, which Lesnar believes is a highlight for people on AERO's tour. But the $500,000 venture, funded by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation's Fuels for Schools program, is largely a matter of cost savings according to boiler operator Duane West. West says the school goes through an average of 24 tons of woodchips a week, and typically runs the boiler eight months out of the year. Despite the price of woodchips and transport from Drummond, he says the investment has so far paid off.
"It saves us $10 an hour, 24 hours a day," West says. "[Those numbers] may have to be updated. Initially we were getting it for $4 a ton. Now it's like $8 a ton."
The smaller solar ventures around Philipsburg, of which Solar Plexus has installed four, have a much lengthier return rate. The average cost of a private solar project is currently around $12,000, Tavenner says. But he adds that with the grants available through NorthWestern Energy, along with tax credits from the state, the upfront investment is only around $3,200. Five years ago, such projects came with a much heftier price tag. Often all an area like the Flint Creek valley needs is a push from someone like Solar Plexus to start a local trend.
"It catches on," Tavenner says. "One person sees that someone else has got it, they get interested and that makes it grow. Same with the hydro. The hydro makes the town of Philipsburg realize that they can do their own power, then there's pride in it, the town gets into it. Now the sheriff wants to do something, so he puts in solar."
Solar Plexus recently helped the Granite County Sheriff's Department install a solar array at its office.
And the sometimes-contagious nature of renewable energy initiatives isn't restricted to a single valley. Perhaps inspired by Philipsburg's longstanding dedication to running a hydroelectric retail operation, the city of Whitefish announced it would refurbish a defunct hydroelectric facility and begin generating its own electricity.
"Everybody in rural Montana realizes we need to cut costs so our bills can be lower," Duane West says. "We're not opposed to any way to save money."