The Winds of Change 

Can Montana lead the way in the alternative energy revolution?

Perched on the crest of a hill at the foot of the snow-capped Mission Mountains is a cluster of homes unlike virtually any other in Montana. The four houses and a barn bear the unmistakable signature of high-style and affluence: the large bay windows that capture the breathtaking vista of the jagged peaks to the south, the hand-peeled birch baluster that spirals into a living room and kitchen dug partly into the side of the mountain, the multi-colored slate shingles that seem to be hewn from the very stone of the mountains they emulate.

Yet something is noticeably absent from this idyllic picture, a detail the eye captures first but the mind is slow to register. No overhead wires traverse the tree line, no utility boxes cling like koalas to power poles, no spinning meters count the inexorable flow of electrons that keep refrigerators humming and electric lights glowing. This entire complex, a veritable model of resource conservation and energy efficiency—from its salvaged timber beams to its ultraviolet lights that purify the potable water supply—is powered entirely on solar and wind energy.

For the owners of this remote hideaway (who asked to remain anonymous), the decision to stay independent of the utility grid was based as much on economic as philosophical grounds. At a cost of nearly $50,000 per mile to run power lines to this spot, the owners chose instead to invest in what promises to be the premier emergent technologies of the first decade of the 21st century: green energy.

Standing some 50 feet above the main house is a small wind turbine, whose lazy rotation on this calm April afternoon is barely discernible. Operating more efficiently is the 22-foot-by-42-foot solar array that pulls double-duty as roof shingles for the barn. Even under an overcast sky, the seven-kilowatt system is generating enough electricity to meet the consumption needs of the four structures: household appliances, water heaters, pumps to pressurize water lines, and anything else the residents have plugged in.

“Basically it’s a miniature city,” says Missoula builder Steve Loken, who spent nearly three years constructing these homes outside of St. Ignatius. “They have all the things you have in a city, except on a much smaller scale: pressurized water lines, a well, sewage waste water treatment, electricity generation.”

Obviously, such freedom from the grid doesn’t come cheap. Loken won’t divulge exactly how much this system costs, except to say that “It’s not for the faint-hearted.”

Still, while this closed loop of energy generation operates high above the Mission Valley floor, its technology is anything but pie-in-the-sky. As Loken puts it, “Anyone can do this. It’s not that challenging or difficult. At a more affordable scale, much of this can be done. It’s just conservation of energy and renewables.”

The Green Energy Revolution

On this, the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, Montana and the rest of the nation stand on the brink of an alternative energy revolution. During the 1990s, solar energy, the world’s second fastest-growing energy source, ballooned an annual rate of 16 percent and is poised to explode into the mass market within the next ten years. Also known as photovoltaics (or “PV”), solar energy was for years seen as an unreliable, if promising novelty, reserved for NASA space probes, rich eccentrics and free pocket calculators. Today, PV is a mature, proven technology, in use at hundreds of sites throughout Montana.

But the biggest storm of the decade was clearly wind generation, now the world’s fastest-growing source of energy. Expanding at a mind-blowing pace of 30 percent annually (and even faster in 1999), the wind technology industry is expected to become cost competitive with even the cheapest fossil fuel energy sources by 2010. A study released this month by the Olympia, Wash.,-based firm, Climate Solutions, notes that wind generation could provide 10 percent of the world’s electricity needs by 2020, exceeding Europe’s current total electricity consumption.

Concerns about global warming and the proliferation of greenhouse gases, acid rain, resource degradation, and reliance on foreign oil are all fueling a burgeoning interest, research and financial investment in clean, renewable energy sources. Meanwhile, in Montana, utility restructuring is literally reshaping the way energy will be generated, transmitted and distributed in the 21st century.

So how is Montana positioned to capitalize on this race toward green energy? According to the National Center for Appropriate Technology, Montana has an abundant solar resource that can be tapped easily for residential and commercial uses, farming, ranching, recreation and a host of other industrial uses.

And yet, we have only the vaguest notion of how many solar electric systems are now in use in Montana. Thus far there has been no coordinated effort at the state level to either track or encourage the use of solar energy. This is indeed unfortunate, because until the price of photovoltaic systems drops considerably, driven down by the economy of scale, the market for PV systems will remain largely dependent upon federal subsidies and tax breaks, or else reserved for the wealthy few who can afford to make a considerable up-front investment.

The case for wind generation in Montana is perhaps even more dramatic. Ask anyone in western Montana about wind generation and they’re likely to mention the handful of wind turbines that were built in Livingston in the 1970s and 1980s, or more locally, the now-defunct Moriah Power windmill that spins lazily on the Highway 93 roadside in the Bitterroot Valley.

The fact is, the American Wind Energy Association ranks Montana fifth in the nation for possible wind energy generation, with the potential to generate an estimated 1 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Patrick Mazza, author of the Climate Solutions report, “Accelerating the Clean Energy Revolution,” calls Montana “a Saudi Arabia of the breeze [that] could reliably supply 116,000 megawatts, [or] 15 percent of U.S. electrical demands.”

In 1998 alone, more than 230 megawatts of new wind capacity were installed in the United States, none of which occurred in Montana. This is staggering, when you consider that our closest neighbors—Washington, Oregon, Wyoming and North Dakota—are all forging ahead with ambitious wind generation projects. In Iowa, whose economy is similar to that of Montana, the wind industry generates $2 million per year in tax payments to counties and school districts, $640,000 per year in direct lease payments to landowners and created 200 construction jobs in 1999 alone.

In environmental measures, that’s 382,094 tons of coal that Iowa will not burn for electricity this year, 1.3 billion pounds of greenhouse gases that will not be released into the environment, and 646 million kilowatt-hours of pollution-free energy, enough to serve the needs of 66,204 residential customers.

Surprisingly, except for one wind-powered waste treatment facility located in Browning, there are few, if any, utility-grade wind turbines operating in Montana. Again, no state agency tracks wind generation projects or actively encourages the technologies that could tap this abundant resource. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which dedicates considerable time and resources to monitoring the state’s fossil fuel industry, devotes next to nothing to Montana’s immense alternative energy potential.

Part of the problem, of course, has been lack of motivation. Historically, Montana has enjoyed low-cost electricity that depends upon resources found in our own backyard. As the nation’s sixth-largest net generator of hydroelectric power, we get 52 percent of our electricity from a network of hydroelectric dams. As the seventh-largest coal producing state, Montana meets 48 percent of its electricity needs from coal-fired plants. In contrast, solar and wind generation make up less than one percent combined.

Has Montana fallen hopelessly behind the green energy curve? Probably not, although we have some real catching up to do. In 1997 the Montana Legislature approved the Universal System Benefits Charge (USBC), which in 1999 collected about $8.5 million from utility customers to promote alternative energy programs, conservation, low-income customer billing assistance and weatherization.

Other efforts underway to bring Montana into the alternative energy mainstream include a Montana Wind Symposium scheduled for early this summer at Montana State University, which will look into ways of promoting wind generation development. The Montana Solar Initiative, a partner of the Clinton Administration’s 1997 Million Solar Roofs Initiative, has already brought together representatives from the utilities industry, electricity cooperatives, solar business owners and environmentalists to meet its goal of installing 1,000 solar systems on rooftops throughout Montana by 2010. Sweeping changes are in the air, and they’re not all happening on remote Montana hillsides.

Shine On, You Crazy Diamond

Amid the organized chaos in the yard of the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project on Missoula’s Northside, volunteers are laying the groundwork for what may be one of MUD’s largest and most ambitious projects to date: the renovation of its main office and the installation of a 264-panel solar array, donated from PV system manufacturer Atlantis Energy. The project, funded by a $22,369 grant from the Montana Power Company and being installed by Solar Plexus of Missoula, will turn the roofs of MUD’s existing house and a soon-to-be reconstructed railroad worker shack into solar energy collectors. When the panels are fully installed by the end of May, the system will produce about 3,000 watts of electricity, reducing MUD’s utility bill by an estimated 75-80 percent annually.

Like the St. Ignatius homes (where, coincidentally, the donated solar panels were first put into use) the MUD renovation will also incorporate passive solar designs to make the house more energy efficient. For example, all living spaces will be situated on the south side of the building, where energy efficient windows will gather the heat of the day during the winter and reflect it during the summer. Likewise, a south-facing “water wall” composed of one-gallon olive oil cans filled with water will collect heat during the day and conduct it into the house at night.

The PV system itself will be intertied to the utility grid through a process known as “net metering,” whereby any excess solar energy generated is fed back into the power grid, thus running the meter backward and earning the customer credit.

Similar demonstration projects will soon be underway throughout Montana. In the next month or so, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) will announce the winners of the “Sun4Schools” Project, a program that will install three- to four-kilowatt PV systems this summer in 12 middle schools or high schools across Montana. Like the MUD project, the school PV systems will be net metered and are expected to generate about 6,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually to supplement the schools’ energy needs, eliminating the emission of more than 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide and nearly two pounds of nitrogen oxides each year. At least one of those schools will be in the Missoula Valley, and several are in the Bitterroot.

Such demonstration projects are all well and good at raising public awareness of solar energy’s potential, but even solar’s most ardent supporters admit that it may be years before solar energy is cost-competitive with fossil fuel and hydroelectric sources. So how much interest is there already among Montana consumers to invest in it?

Plenty, says NCAT’s Dale Horton. In March, NCAT ran advertisements in newspapers across the state, offering to subsidize the cost of 20 to 30 one-kilowatt residential PV systems. Although the solar systems usually run about $13,000 each, homeowners would only have to invest $3,000 to have one installed. The response? In one week, NCAT received 650 requests for applications.

“That means that there are at least 650 people out there who are interested in spending $3,000 of their own money to have a solar system on their house that would only provide a part of their energy needs,” says Horton. “That, to me, suggests that folks place a high value on energy produced by the sun or clean energy resources.”

Though Horton speaks optimistically about the future of solar energy, he admits that these demonstration projects do more to lay the foundation for Montana’s renewable energy industry by helping to reduce future costs, rather than providing any immediate economic benefits.

“I would hate for people to believe that solar energy is now cost-effective for the average Montana Power customer,” he says. “Clearly, it is not.”

Horton also cautions against falling into the trap of enacting energy policies like those of the 1970s, when one-time federal tax credits caused solar businesses in Montana to become “a flash in the pan,” only to disappear a few years later once the tax credits dried up.

That said, solar energy holds the potential to not only transform Montana’s energy usage, but also to provide the state’s economy with a clean industry that has a ready-made international market. As Horton points out, three-fourths of the PV systems manufactured in the United States are sold overseas, primarily to developing nations, where it is often cheaper to install remote solar generators than to invest in centralized power plants and miles of transmission lines. Creating a strong domestic market for solar products also ensures that American solar companies remains competitive with their European and Asian counterparts.

Answers Blowin’ in the Wind

In 1991, on a open stretch of highway outside of Browning, Martin Wilde, then living in Columbus, Ohio, made an interesting discovery that changed the direction of his life.

“I was out here driving and I felt this power ripping at my rental car,” says Wilde. “And I thought, ‘Gee, someone ought to do something with this here.’“

Five years later, Wilde had installed the first utility-scale wind turbine on Indian land in Montana. Today, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Blackfeet Tribe, Glacier Electric Cooperative and the City of Browning, four 10-kilowatt turbines provide about 25-35 percent of the energy needs for Browning’s waste treatment facility, which comes to about $2,000 to $3,000 per month.

According to Wilde, now the project’s manager, the wind turbines have been functioning just as he expected them to, without any of the problems that plagued some of the Livingston turbines, which either blew down or froze up in the bitter cold of Montana winters. Nor, he says, have there been any noise complaints or conflicts with wildlife. If wind generation has earned any bad reputation at all, says Wilde, it likely comes from Altamont Pass in southern California, where “unbridled, irresponsible development, fueled by unrealistic economics” led to dozens of wind projects littering the countryside, tragically, as was later discovered, along a major flyway for birds.

In short, says Wilde, for the Blackfeet Reservation, where alcoholism and unemployment are more common than economic opportunity, the Browning wind project has been a real success story. Again, he admits that it’s a more of a demonstration project to promote wind technology rather than a true example of the large-scale commercial potential of wind energy in this region.

“Putting a windmill up next to something that uses a lot of electricity is a meaningful, significant and easy-to-do project,” says Wilde. “To put up a bunch of windmills a thousand miles away from where you’re going to use the power is not so easy to do.”

“Probably the biggest hindrance [to wind generation in Montana] is that people claim it’s very cost-ineffective,” says Great Falls rancher Richard Liebert, who has been exploring the possibility of starting wind generation cooperatives to boost the incomes of Montana’s farmers and ranchers. “It costs two to three times more to generate power from wind. Well, that’s true, but nobody thought about the cost of hydroelectric power before we started investing in dams. And that wasn’t all built with private money, I’ll tell you that.”

Liebert, who recalls the days when every farmer and rancher had a small windmill on his property, says he’s been frustrated in his efforts to find anyone at the state level interested in making his vision a reality .

“It’s ironic that we have all these windmills that pull up water and power little radios and did so much for plumbing, and we can’t go ahead with the tried-and-true technology that we relied upon so much in the last century,” says Liebert. “Nobody’s leading the charge. It’s just incredible. It’s like an idea that was stillborn.”

The End of Grid Lock?

These are, indeed, uncertain times for electricity generation and distribution in Montana. When the Montana Legislature enacted the Electric Utility Industry Restructuring and Customer Choice Act in 1997, allowing customers to choose which company supplies their electricity, no one foresaw that the Montana Power Company, the state’s largest utility, would opt to get out of the electricity business.

But this uncertainty also brings unprecedented opportunity for innovation, not only in the technologies we rely upon for generating electricity, but also in how electricity is sold and distributed. Green energy like wind and solar hold the key to radically redefine what utilities are and, excuse the pun, who holds the power.

The days of vertically integrated utilities, where a monopoly owned all the resources—from the coal in the ground that fired the generation plant to the power line that ran into your house—may soon be a thing of the past. As NCAT’s Horton explains, alternative energy offers the potential for what’s known as “distributed generation.” Instead of the traditional system in which electricity is generated at a centralized location and fed in one direction to consumers over power lines, distributed generation allows small generation units, like rooftop solar arrays, small wind turbines and fuel cells, to be dispersed across the grid, with electricity flowing in many directions at once. This model that bears a remarkable resemblance to the paradigm shift that occurred in the communications industry, with the advent of the Internet.

“This will be revolutionary,” says Horton. “People thought restructuring was going to change the electric utility industry. Restructuring will look like a small blip compared to what distributed generation will mean. Who controls it? Who makes the rules? Who sets the rates?”

The revolution, it appears, has already begun. In Pennsylvania a company call Green Mountain is leasing roofs from K-Mart and other buildings with flat roofs, installing photovoltaic panels and calling themselves a solar utility. It’s estimated that the typical box store, with a 100,000-square-foot roof, is capable of producing more than a megawatt of solar electricity. One can only imagine the potential energy that could be recouped on Reserve Street.

That Montana will be swept up in this alternative energy revolution is all but a certainty. The question remains whether we will be a major player, or left blowing in the breeze.

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