HELENA – Renewable energy advocates and business interests launched a new campaign Wednesday focused on steering the statewide energy debate toward renewable energy opportunities in the face of weakening demand for Montana coal.
Called "Charge," the campaign includes a website, bumper stickers and plans for billboards displaying a wind farm with the slogan "A Boom That Won't Bust." Speakers at Wednesday's launch held at Solar Montana in Helena focused on energy trends with an emphasis on seizing the potential of a growing renewable energy market.
"Montana's energy economy is in crisis," Jeff Fox, Montana policy manager for Renewable Northwest, a renewable energy advocate, told the crowd. "West Coast states have made the decision to reduce or eliminate coal-produced energy, and that means eventually Montana will either need to decide what to do without coal jobs and revenue or find a sustainable replacement," he said.
Montana currently exports more than half its coal-produced energy, but "the people that we sell that electricity to no longer want to buy coal power," he said. "On the power generation side of the equation of the story it really is that simple. The question for us is, what do we want to do about it?"
Montana's energy future has been a major political topic at city, county, state and federal levels. With concerns over the future of mining and plant jobs at Colstrip and accusations of federal overreach with the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, Republicans and some Democrats continue to rally behind an industry that has employed thousands of Montanans and produced millions of dollars in incomes.
Although he emphasized the campaign is about a business reality rather than a political shift, Fox challenged the 40 people in attendance to be part of a proactive stance as opposed to those only interested in maintaining the status quo. West Coast states will either seek to generate their own renewable energy from wind and solar or look to other states prioritizing the transition.
"We have sympathy for coal workers and coal towns. Coal has been an important part of Montana's economy for a very long time and it will be for a while longer," Fox said. "This isn't a debate about the best kind of energy, it's a debate about what we can sell, whether we'd like to sit around and do nothing or participate in the markets that are being formed."
Montana is set to become a player in wind and solar energy with our climate producing the most renewables at the time of day and year when they hit peak demand, he added.
Mark Haggerty with Headwaters Economics detailed a shifting energy market where coal peaked but has been on a downward trend in terms of demand and price. The energy market is in a transition, he said, and that means more volatility in the future with the onset of renewables and with natural gas recently surpassing coal in percentage of energy production.
Montana's economy will continue to grow throughout any transition, but that growth has been largely disproportionate in favor of cities, he said.
"No matter what happens we need to start planning for our energy transition now so that we don't leave some communities without assistance if they are going to see their opportunities decline, but also so that we capture new opportunities across the state for communities that have those options," Haggerty said. "Our job is to generate ideas and nurture them for the time when the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable."
Shelby Mayor Larry Bonderud said his community aggressively sought wind energy development and the effort has paid major dividends. After four to five years of construction the utilities now employ dozens of permanent employees while spending millions of dollars in Toole County. Many people, especially youths, have trained to work at the sites and are now able to stay in their community, he said.
"This can occur in rural Montana, and it's a way to diversify the economy in rural Montana," Bonderud said.
Diana Maneta, executive director of the Montana Renewable Energy Association, noted that nationwide there are more jobs in solar energy than in oil and gas extraction. The cost of solar panels has dropped and Montana has seen an uptick in community solar projects, and the first utility-sized installations are slated for the next year.
Even with recent expansion, solar accounts for only 0.1 percent of Montana's energy production, but rooftop alone has potential to account for about 28 percent, she said. That means the opportunity is ripe for continued growth.
In an interview after the launch, Fox said the campaign has a single billboard site chosen in Helena but is looking for additional sites. The website chargemt.org has already gone live.
The slogan asserting that the renewable boom "won't bust" speaks to the nature of renewable installations, he explained.
"There's really no reason to ever retire a successful renewable energy project," he said, explaining that once the installation is on the ground, it is a matter of maintenance rather than depleting resources to continue producing energy. "When it comes to the boom, absolutely markets in California, Oregon and Washington are all moving away from coal and looking to consume and purchase renewable energy and we have that in plentiful quantities in Montana."