BUTTE - NorthWestern Energy needs to do more to promote renewable energy, according to about 100 people — many from Missoula and Bozeman — who rallied Monday outside the utility’s headquarters in Uptown Butte.
The rally, sponsored by Missoula-based nonprofit 350 Montana, started several blocks away at Emma Park, and featured music, speakers, drumming and placards. The participants then walked to NWE headquarters, Park and Main, where several people spoke.
Brian Fadie told the audience that NWE is proposing to spend $1.3 billion to build 13 new natural gas generating plants in Montana — rather than focus on small scale solar and wind projects. Fadie is the clean energy program director for Helena-based Montana Environmental Information Center.
But NWE company spokesman Butch Larcombe, when contacted by The Montana Standard, said there are no such plans in the works. NWE filed an electrical resource plan with the Public Service Commission in March, a requirement NWE fulfills every two years, which discussed the possibility of natural gas generating plants.
“It’s a crystal ball look of where we might get energy in the future,” Larcombe said. “Where they’re getting the $1.3 billion or where they’re getting the 13, I have no idea.”
Larcombe called the discussion of natural gas generating plants “an outline of scenarios,” and said wind additions and hydro-generating scenarios are in the plan as well.
John Woodland, 350 Montana's press liaison, said natural gas generating plants produce methane and have "just as much of a negative impact as coal."
Larcombe also said NWE has invested more than $1 billion in the last two to three years in clean energy. He said 40 percent of NWE customers’ electricity comes from hydropower and more than 60 percent of NWE customers get their electricity from wind or water.
NWE recently held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on a $1 million solar project outside of Bozeman that is “the largest solar project in Montana at this point,” Larcombe said. NWE also has a wind farm southeast of Great Falls. Larcombe said that of NWE’s 360,000 electrical customers, 1,700 homes and businesses are on solar- or wind-generating systems selling energy back to NWE.
David Merrill, senior organizer from the Missoula-based Montana chapter of Sierra Club, another of Monday’s rally speakers, likened the energy path the country is on to a sinking ship called the U.S.S. Carbon Klunker.
“We’re already on a carbon-fueled sinking ship,” Merrill said.
Merrill carried the metaphor further by saying there was a “new ship on the horizon,” and it is “wind, water and sunlight.”
Noorjahan Parwana, 56, and her husband, Mark Syverson, 58, of Butte, attended the rally. Parwana said NWE should make solar more affordable.
Larcombe said state and federal tax incentives are available for customers and that NWE provides grants to help low-income customers with solar panel installation. NWE customers who are interested in learning more about those programs can call the utility, Larcombe said.
Montana Tech professor Grant Mitman, 58, said at the rally that his electrical bill is $60 to $100 a year because he uses solar energy to heat his home.
Jill Davies, 69, of Victor, in the Bitterroot Valley, owns a small farm about 35 miles south of Missoula and installed solar panels three years ago.
“They pay for themselves in 12 to 15 years,” Davies said at the rally.
Woodland, of 350 Montana, which is primarily concerned with the effects of climate change, said increasing the use of green energy, whether it’s wind, solar or water-based sources, is not really an option, but a necessity.
“We’ve got to act now; 20 years from now will be too late,” Woodland said.