Guest opinion: New thinking needed to solve energy problems – Billings Gazette, May 28, 2014

May 29, 2014

Categories: Clean Energy, Climate change, Coal, News

By Ben Reed

Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, has indicated his state wants to transition away from fossil fuels toward clean and renewable fuels. For some Montanans, this signals a further decline in a historic industry because Montana supplies some of the electricity for Washington from coal-fired power plants.

Instead of fighting it, we should accept it and capitalize on it.

For many Montanans, this means new opportunity because of our vast wind and solar potential. According to a 2009 Harvard study, Montana’s wind resource potential is the nation’s second best, and has a potential capacity that is 370 times greater than Montana’s current total retail electricity sales. With this extraordinary wind resource, Montana could transition from coal to wind for the current Pacific Northwest states’ demand and have more than enough megawatts to spare. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the wind industry alone has the potential to create 2,800 long-term jobs in Montana. Along with these wind resources, Montana solar manufacturers and installers, and energy efficient builders and retrofitters, are a growing and robust source of solid long term employment opportunities in the clean energy economy.

In the ongoing deliberations over Northwestern Energy’s purchase of Pennsylvania Power and Light’s hydroelectric dams in Montana, Northwestern wanted PPL to deduct $340 million from the value of the dams in order to get NWE to agree to take Colstrip 1 and 2 as part of the deal.

Colstrip is seen as a liability, not an asset. It currently produces power at costs almost twice that of NWE’s wind resources (see “Northwestern Energy Residential Rates and Electricity Supply.” Montana Public Service Commission, June 2013).

The market has spoken. The fact that Colstrip’s future is cloudy cannot be laid at the feet of visionary, courageous governors along the West Coast. It is more realistic to acknowledge that renewable energy is here and now, and we should embrace it, and move forward to produce that energy for customers who desire to purchase it. As an energy industry, the coal businesses, to remain viable/sustainable, should transition its capital resources into the new, clean energy economy and prosper once more.

Elected officials, for example Inslee of Washington, are looking toward securing the stability and future of our environment for generations to come by transitioning away from coal. That is not an easy task, and is sure to be controversial when that future calls for cleaning up the energy sources that have fueled our communities in the past. He is courageous and to be commended. His declaration creates economic development in Montana overnight.

We should recognize the positive side of this development and not cling to the declining, hazardous, and costly energy of the past. When the public demands computers, we would be wrong to force them to buy typewriters.

Montana need not lose the energy market if their customers want clean energy. We are still supplying energy, and much of it will come from the wind and the sun. An existing system of hydroelectric dams helps to balance that vast wind resource and enhance its reliability as a stable source of energy.

It is time to acknowledge and respect the rights of our energy market customers to demand a newer and better product – one that uses clean, renewable resources, and does not pollute air and water or compromise public health. We can meet that demand and prosper, and secure our own more stable and secure world for our children and grandchildren.

For the past 27 years, Reed has owned Winpower West in Billings, a renewable and alternative energy business. Prior to that, he taught finance and economics.

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