Clean Renewable Energy
Northern Plains members advocate for energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy such as wind and solar, based on the belief that a common-sense energy policy can keep energy costs down and bring broader prosperity to our rural Montana communities while protecting our land. We must shift away from fossil fuels and embrace a forward-thinking energy policy that emphasizes clean, renewable, and efficient technologies and enables distributed generation of renewable energy.
We asked Montanans their opinion on renewable energy. See the results of our survey>>
The Montana Legislature made decisions that impact your choices in energy costs and sources. Find out more>>
The Stone Age did not end because they ran out of stones. They found a better way. Likewise, the Fossil Fuel Age shouldn’t end so much because we’re running out of fossil fuels, but because there is a better way.
— Helen Waller, an early member of Northern Plains
Tapping Montana’s vast supplies of clean energy is the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable way to increase fuel and energy supplies and hold down prices. Developing these resources – namely solar and wind power, biodiesel, geothermal, and energy efficient technologies – is also a valuable tool to protect Montana’s clean water, farm and ranch families, and our unique quality of life.
We can continue to pour our resources and emphasis into the energy sources of the past. Or, we can back solutions that put our state on the road to a clean energy future. A common-sense energy policy for Montana can keep energy costs down and bring broader prosperity to our rural communities. Here’s how:
Montana’s net metering law was passed with unanimous bipartisan support in 1999. Net metering allows utility customers to hook up a renewable energy system to the grid to off-set their own power usage. When the system produces excess power, the extra electrons flow onto the power grid and are sold by the utility to the nearest neighbor. For each kWh that is sent to the grid, you receive a kWh credit.
Let’s encourage adoption of solar and wind technologies by removing barriers that inhibit small scale installations:
- Remove the arbitrary 50kW cap on system size,
- Allow net metered systems be tied to multiple meters,
- Allow for community installations instead of requiring the system to be on the property of benefit.
Click here to learn more about net metering, energy policy, solar & wind solutions and the economic benefits of renewable energy
The wind is always blowing somewhere in Montana– giving us some of the best wind resources in the United States. A study from Harvard University pegs Montana’s wind potential as second only to Texas, with accessible wind resources 370 times greater than the state’s electricity usage. (1)
If we tap just a fraction of our wind power potential, we can contribute significantly to solving our nation’s energy needs and spur economic development across the state. A 2014 Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee (ETIC) study by the Montana Legislature found that the 6 wind farms brought on-line for utilities’ compliance with the state’s Renewable Energy Standard resulted in $404 million in project investment, $1 million in lease payments to private landowners, approximately $2 million in property taxes, and 445 construction and 24 full-time permanent jobs. (2)
Utility-scale wind power is affordable, too. Electricity from the Judith Gap and Spion Kop wind projects are contracted to sell power for less than what NorthWestern Energy customers currently pay for electricity.
In June 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed its “Clean Power Plan” – the first-ever limits on carbon pollution for the nation’s existing electricity generating plants. The proposed plan calls for a nationwide reduction of 730 million metric tons of carbon pollution by 2030 – a 30% reduction from America’s 2005 carbon pollution levels.
Montana can easily meet carbon pollution reduction goals and strengthen our economy:
- Montana has the second-best wind resource potential in the country,
- We have great untapped solar energy potential,
- We also have the opportunity for vast energy efficiency gains – by far the most affordable electricity resource available.
Click here to read more about Montana’s pathways to a cleaner energy future and meeting our carbon reduction goals.
A certified energy auditor explains the blower door test in Sally Orr’s home. Instruments monitor the amount of air pulled out of the house by a fan in the sealed front door. The simple test also determines the overall tightness of a home or building and where air leaks need to be sealed.
Though Montana is a net exporter of electricity and natural gas, we pay relatively high utility bills. The extremes of our weather range from very cold in the winter to very hot in the summer, meaning a substantial percentage of income goes to heating and cooling buildings.
Nationwide, buildings consume 40% of all energy used in the United States. Aggressive investment in energy efficiency will allow us to tap this virtually endless opportunity for energy savings.
According to the Western Governors’ Association, for every $1 we invest in energy efficiency in the West, we get $2.50 in return. The Association also found that we can easily improve our efficiency by 20% – as much energy as would be produced by 100 new coal-fired power plants. Which, we ask, is the better investment? Pursuing energy efficiency retrofits of homes or businesses keeps more dollars in Montanans pockets every month.
We can improve our energy efficiency through policies and programs such as:
- ‘Benchmarking’ and tracking building energy use in
- State buildings
- Rental properties
- Offering comprehensive home energy audits (blower door test, infrared cameras, energy modeling, etc)
- Offering incentives for businesses and homeowners who make investments in energy efficiency
Increase the efficiency of your own home by:
- Increasing building insulation,
- Replacing lightbulbs with CFL or LED versions,
- Increase daylighting,
- Reducing “vampire” plug loads,
- Using Energy Star certified appliances,
- Increasing efficiency of heating and cooling systems,
- Replacing old windows, and
- Sealing any cracks in foundation and gaps around windows and doors.
Northern Plains works to ensure that rural electric cooperatives work openly with members to achieve affordable power by adopting cleaner, cheaper, faster energy solutions.
Goals for Rural Cooperatives
Northern Plains encourages co-ops to set achievable clean energy goals and follow through with them. For example, Delta Montrose Electric Association in Colorado set these goals:
- Demand-side: 25% savings on energy bills by 2025;
- Supply-side: 5% renewable generation by 2010; 25% renewable generation by 2025.
We also encourage co-op energy efficiency programs that reduce energy load and save money.
- Efficient compact fluorescent light bulb programs;
- Energy efficiency tips and technical instruction;
- Home energy audits;
- Energy Star appliance rebates;
- Weatherization services and workshops;
- Smart grids that gauge household energy use.
Co-ops should promote renewable energy where it makes sense.
- Enable net metering, which credits people for the excess renewable energy they produce at home; allow community systems with multiple owners and aggregate net metering on one’s own property; don’t add expensive extra fees or restrictive true-up requirements for met metering;
- Geothermal heating/cooling systems;
- “Green Power” programs that allow customers to buy blocks of wind energy;
- Small hydro where appropriate;
- Solar, wind, and biomass;
- Landfill gas capture.
Montana co-ops and their structure
Montana has 24 distribution co-ops that deliver energy in all 56 counties and provide power to 157,013 members. They are represented on the state level by the Montana Electric Cooperative Association, which lobbies the legislature, provides co-op trainings, and controls co-op public messaging. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association performs similar functions for all co-ops on the national level.
The distribution co-ops rely on other sources for their power generation, including private utilities such as PPL Montana, the generation and transmission (G&T) co-op power supplier Basin Electric, or federal power administrations such as Bonneville Power Administration and the Western Area Power Administration. Most distribution co-ops are members of intermediate G&T co-ops, such as Central Montana G&T. They do not actually generate energy but function as middlemen between the power supply and the distribution co-ops.
Many co-op members’ electric bills are becoming unaffordable, and Montana co-ops are falling behind in securing long-term solutions such as energy efficiency programs and renewable power from sources such as wind and sun.
Open and democratic governance
Many rural electric co-ops have strayed from their original foundations of democratic member control, and it is often difficult for members to access important and basic information, participate in elections and meetings, and make their voices heard by co-op boards. Northern Plains supports:
- Northern Plains supports increased co-op openness and the ability of members to participate democratically as owners of their co-ops.
- Open board meetings with agenda and detailed minutes available to members;
- Opportunity for member comments at board and annual meetings;
- An open records policy;
- The opportunity for members to make resolutions at the annual meeting.
We also call for a fair and open nomination and election process including:
- Mail-in ballots that allow members who can’t attend the annual meeting to vote;
- Nomination by petition and notice of nomination deadlines;
- Annual meetings held in convenient places and at convenient times for members (e.g. on a weekend as opposed to a weekday);
- Board candidate descriptions and questionnaires;
- Term limits for the board of directors;
- Member input on bylaws revisions.
Cleaner, cheaper, faster
Rural electric co-ops have relied on the subsidized and externalized costs of dirty energy such as coal and oil for too long. The stage is set to move toward cleaner, cheaper and faster solutions. Here are just a few of the reasons why:
Electric co-op rates are becoming unaffordable. The priority of electric co-ops is to provide affordable electricity for their members. However, co-op rates, particularly in southern Montana, have been rising fast, and debt payments for the failed Highwood coal plant have contributed significantly to this member rate increase. Co-ops need to keep their members informed and involved in decisions that affect their ability to pay electric bills.
The future of coal is too expensive. Coal was the cheapest energy source of the last century, however prices have been rising for a number of reasons. As we consume more energy, the supply of economically recoverable coal is becoming less accessible and more expensive. Coal production is decreasing in eastern states, which is likely to raise prices for coal in the West. These factors, along with likely carbon dioxide regulations, forecast a costly energy future if no action is taken. We need decisive action by the co-ops to secure affordable energy alternatives for their members.
Cleaner, cheaper, faster energy solutions are available. The cheapest energy is the energy we don’t use. Investing in efficiency measures for homes and businesses is the only way for co-ops to reduce rates and their energy load for the long term. This will save us all money, especially by reducing the need for more costly power plants.
Before another coal-fired power plant is built, we need to take advantage of Montana’s abundant wind resources, along with energy from the sun’s rays, the water’s power, the earth’s natural ground heat, and other renewable sources. These options are more prevalent and reliable than ever. Montana co-ops need to provide incentives and assistance for members interested in small-scale generation, while also finding ways to invest in their own renewable generation. Our co-ops have a responsibility to their members to keep future energy costs down by promoting cleaner, cheaper, and faster solutions now.
A better way
The good news is that a handful of forward-thinking electric co-ops around the country have already set a precedent for smarter and cleaner energy progress. These co-ops, such as Flathead Electric in Montana, Delta Montrose Electric in Colorado, Bluebonnet Electric in Texas, Waverly Light and Power in Iowa, and New Mexico’s Kit Carson Electric are making responsible decisions to move toward a cleaner energy future. They are investing in smart grids; efficient lighting; weatherization; solar and wind generation; small hydropower; and landfill gas generation. In doing so, these co-ops have brought multiple benefits to their communities. These long-term benefits include sustainable jobs and small businesses, lower energy bills, keeping money in the community, reduced energy loads, greater energy independence, and cleaner air.
Progress with Montana Co-ops
Northern Plains is resuming rural electric co-op work we began in the 1980s, seeking greater transparency and smarter use of energy. Our affiliate members in the Stillwater Protective Association and the Carbon County Resource Council are working toward these goals in Beartooth Electric Co-op.
Northern Plains is also working with members of the Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative (YVEC). YVEC has a good start on energy-saving incentives, however, members saw their rates go up 21% in 2009 and are interested in actively pursuing further efficiency and renewable options. Northern Plains is organizing this effort to bring members together with their co-op to work toward effective solutions.
1) “Global Potential for Wind-Generated Electricity.” Xi Lua, Michael B. McElroya, and Juha Kiviluomac. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/27/10933.full.pdf
2) “Renewables: Risks and Rewards. A Look at the Impacts of Montana’s Renewable Energy Standard.” Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee. http://leg.mt.gov/content/Committees/Interim/2013-2014/Energy-and-Telecommunications/Legislation/RPSFinal.pdf