Montana’s untapped resource? Renewable energy

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Water shoots through the spillways at the bottom of the Hungry Horse Dam in this file photo.

Montana has a wealth of clean, renewable energy, it just has to capitalize on it. That was the gist of a recent panel discussion envisioning Montana’s clean energy economy recently held in Columbia Falls, hosted by Climate Smart Glacier Country.

A big chunk of the region’s electricity supply is already clean and renewable — it comes from the numerous dams built over the past 70 years in the Columbia River Basin, but the state has great potential in wind and solar energy development as well.

According to Jacqueline Sussman, a University of Montana Research Fellow, Montana has the potential to be one of the top five wind energy producing states in the country, but currently ranks just 22nd in production. It also has lots of sunshine — most of the state, particularly east of the Divide, averages about 300 days of sun per year, yet the state also ranks near the bottom in solar energy jobs and production.

One problem is transmission – the state can produce the power, but transmission lines to get the power out of the state are lacking, she noted. One idea is to re-purpose the power grid that serves the Colstrip coal fired plants to renewable energy sources.

Another problem with wind and solar energy is storage.

Vizn Energy of Columbia Falls has been developing large capacity renewable batteries that are designed to store the power from say, a solar array when the sun isn’t shining or a wind turbine when the wind isn’t blowing.

The company has been working on its batteries systems, which are the size of a big storage container, for several years now, said Paul Siblerud, vice president of product development for the company.

He said in the next couple of years, the company looks to be in the black. Most of the systems it’s sold to date have been in Europe, though the market is expected to grow 1,000 percent in the next 10 years.

Another way to sustain renewable energy is to simply use less of it to begin with, noted David Bopp of Flathead Electric Cooperative, which provides electricity to the Flathead Valley.

Over the past few years, the Co-op has added a solar array to its renewable energy portfolio, but it has seen greater savings in promoting user efficiencies. For example, the Co-op has recently implemented a program where homeowners and businesses are given a $4 credit on their bill if they install a special device that shuts off the home’s electric water heater during peak loads.

Homeowners rarely notice the device is even installed, but it saves the Co-op from having to go out on the open market to buy additional power.

Most of Co-op’s power supply comes from the Bonneville Power Administration, whose power portfolio is made up of 70 percent hydropower. As such, the power is clean compared to other sources, producing about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour compared to 820 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour from other sources in the Northwest.

One local sawmill is also playing a role in renewable energy. F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber operates a biomass plant at its mill, burning waste sawdust and bark at its plant to run a steam generator. While there’s some debate on whether such a system is truly “carbon neutral” it utilizes a renewable resource — trees.

The plant generates 3 megawatts of electricity — enough for 2,500 to 3,000 homes — and enough steam to dry the mill’s finished lumber, noted Stoltze lands and resource manager Paul McKenzie.

The problem is the power costs more to produce than other sources, like hydro, and the company hasn’t realized any monetary benefit to date on the renewable energy credits from the plant.

For some local businesses, renewable energy has simply made sense.

Barbara Calm, owner of the Calm Veterinary Clinic, put in a rooftop solar facility at her veterinary clinic back in 2008. While the Kila Clinic is on the grid, the power would go out often and she figured every time it did go out, it cost her about $1,000 in lost business.

Solar power amounts to about 30 percent of her power usage, she noted. But her business’s vital infrastructure — lights, computers, phone circuits are tied to the solar source. If the power goes out, she’s still in business, she noted.

Despite political challenges, renewable energy continues to grow. One of the fastest growing jobs in the country? A wind turbine technician, Sussman noted.

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