When pollution pays 

Courtesy of Conoco and other Montana polluters, more than $425,000 is now available, in individual $10,000 loans, to help home owners pay for solar power and other alternative energy systems. The low-interest loans are part of a revolving fund created by the legislature in 2001.

Since then, Conoco has made the largest contribution by paying a $207,000 penalty for violating the state’s Clean Air Act. During a seven-month period spanning 1999 and 2000, Conoco exceeded the limit on sulfur dioxide emissions 1,052 times.

State Department of Environmental Quality officials are still writing the rules on how the loans will be disbursed, but program director Kathi Montgomery has already received a few completed applications in advance. She expects the proposed rules to be unveiled for public comment in a few weeks.

“I encourage people to apply for the money now because I want to be able to cut 15 or 20 checks when the rules are finalized,” Montgomery says.

The program is more than an exercise in irony (in which polluters pay support to non-polluters). Montgomery says the program will stimulate the alternative energy market, improving products and driving down prices. Another expected benefit will be an increased number of qualified installers and knowledgeable experts.

Although solar power is the most common residential upgrade, the loans can be used for any alternative energy system, including ground source heat pumps and biomass power systems. Ground source heat pumps collect energy from the ambient temperature of the earth. Biomass systems harvest energy from organic matter such as wood.

“There’s a real move right now in all western states toward biomass,” Montgomery says. “Because we’ve had forest fires we have fire-damaged wood. And now we have fire suppression activities like forest thinning too. Everyone wants to use small scale wood to produce energy.”

In the case of Conoco, the company’s penalty was initially calcu- lated at about $2 million, says DEQ enforcement officer Larry Alheim. But Conoco was credited more than $1.8 million for upgrading its sulfur dioxide controls beyond government regulations. Such deals are common, Alheim says, but the total amount collected for the program since its inception is not.

“This year was larger than normal,” Alheim says. “Maybe next year there won’t be any penalties.”

That’s already a concern for Montgomery. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initiates the biggest penalties in Montana and she says the federal agency is backing off on enforcement. But with a $425,000 jump start, the loan program is well-funded for now, and Montgomery expects the next legislature to consider directing $50,000 in penalties back to Montana-based enforcement.

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