Good Day, Sunshine 

Montana Power puts alternative energy in the spotlight

Just east of Pipestone Pass on Highway 2, the Sage Mountain Center nestles not far below the Continental Divide. For eight years Chris Borton and his partner Linda Welsh have been building a home and retreat center that would “create an environment where people could learn to live harmoniously with the earth,” Borton says. Sustainable architecture and renewable energy share the roster of the Center’s offerings with yoga and meditation classes.

True to its principles, the Sage Mountain Center is completely off the grid, and relies on a 500-watt solar cell and battery array to run power tools, a computer, compact fluorescent lights, and a super-efficient refrigerator. That’s about half the power used by the average Montana home.

Given this dedication to avoiding a monthly power bill, Borton admits he is surprised to find himself with a $67,000 grant from none other than the Montana Power Company (MPC). The funds will upgrade the Center’s solar array to 1,000 watts by adding more solar cells that will track with the sun, more batteries and a 1,000-watt windmill to boot. The grant also pays Sage Mountain to take its renewable energy seminars on a tour across Montana, which will kick off with a public open house at the Sage Mountain Center on October 16.

In spite of initial reservations about getting into bed with a utility company, Borton didn’t want to miss the chance to “spread the word about clean power,” he says. “Large corporations have a tremendous amount of power to move these technologies into the forefront” of public awareness and acceptance.

The funding for Sage Mountain’s demonstration project comes from a line on your new “unbundled” Montana Power Company electric bill called the Universal System Benefits Charge (USBC). This will amount to around $8.5 million collected from MPC customers in 1999 and will continue at least through 2002.

The USBC is just one of the arcane results of utility deregulation passed into law by the 1997 and 1999 Legislatures. The architects of utility deregulation wanted to ensure that programs like energy conservation and assistance for low-income customers continued after deregulation, says Deb Young, Montana Power’s manager of customer support.

In the old days, Montana Power financed energy conservation programs (out of your bill) because conservation helped the company to avoid building costly new power plants. Now with Montana Power selling its generators and keeping the wires to your home, that incentive is gone. Although there won’t be competition in power distribution any time soon, there will be on the supply side. But suppliers aren’t apt to be interested in conservation. As Young puts it, “Why would a competitive supplier [the power plant owners] help someone buy less of their product?”

Enter the USBC. “The idea was, ‘let’s make sure these things are continued separately from supply,’” Young says. The law puts the responsibility on distributors like MPC to collect funds to be used for public benefit.

Another new wrinkle is that along with traditional conservation and low-income programs, 13 percent of the $1 a month collected from the average residential customer will go toward spreading the use of renewable energy sources. It’s that slice of the pie that Sage Mountain Center is being served from.

Right here in the Garden City, The Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD) is getting over $20,000 in USBC cash for another solar electric showcase. Atlantis Energy is donating $20,000 worth of “solar shingles”—panels installed instead of regular shingles that together will generate 2850 watts on a sunny day. MUD’s Matthew Hisel expects the solar shingles to provide 75 percent of the electricity needs of the MUD site, which includes two houses, wells, and outbuildings.

When finished, the MUD installation will be one of the first examples of “net metering” in Montana. Unlike the Sage Mountain Center, the MUD solar array will use the Montana Power grid like a battery. At night with all the lights on, MUD’s residences will draw power like any other customer. But when the cells are blasting out those watts in full sun, the meter can actually run backwards and MUD will be selling power back to the grid. The catch is, “The best they can do is zero. They can’t make any money with it,” says Dave Ryan, who’s in charge of the renewable energy grant program at MPC.

Although the USBC is mandated by law for four years, Ryan thinks it will take a lot longer for renewable energy technologies to have a significant impact on the energy market. Because they’re so expensive, people have to have some other motivation than savings to install them, Ryan says. “They have to put them in because they have a feeling they’re going to help the earth.”

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