We’ve been doing our Climate Smart Monthly Meetups for almost 2 years now, but every time, I’m amazed at the depth of knowledge and energy around the room – from folks who are experts in their fields, to curious citizens, and everyone in between. I guess what I’m saying is, Missoula is full of awesome people who care deeply about our community. But you probably already knew that!
It was smoky outside, but inside the INBC community room last Thursday, our friends Andrew Valainis with the Montana Renewable Energy Association and Paul Herendeen with Missoula Federal Credit Union helped us get a clearer view of the renewable energy landscape in Missoula and Montana.
As you might guess, that landscape is not always easy to navigate, as it’s full of jargon and acronyms and politics. MREA and MFCU are two valuable guides through this landscape. Through public outreach, policy advocacy, and engagement with renewable energy businesses, MREA works to expand renewable energy in our state. Their annual Clean Energy Fair, which brings together all three of MREA’s areas of expertise, is happening this weekend, in fact – Saturday September 16th in Helena. It’s a great event – we highly recommend checking it out!
It was also exciting to learn about another brand-new MREA initiative, the Montana Solar Community Project. Thanks to funding from the Department of Energy, MREA will be heading on tour to 8 towns large and small across the state this fall to learn about their visions for community solar, and ultimately, how those visions might become reality. Mark your calendars – the Missoula stop will be on October 10th! Community solar can take different forms, but the basic idea is a solar installation whose electricity is shared by multiple users. Several of the electric cooperatives in the state have implemented successful community solar projects, including Missoula Electric Co-op, but one reason we don’t see more of these projects is that virtual net metering, the mechanism that allows households to get credit for the electricity produced by solar panels that aren’t on their own property, is not permitted for the state’s investor-owned utilities (IOUs - Northwestern Energy and MDU). Dang!
Let me pause for a brief PSA as we make our way through the renewable energy landscape: the state Public Service Commission (PSC) is responsible for regulating our IOUs. They’re pretty powerful when it comes to setting the terms for renewable energy development. But they’re elected officials – so it’s important that they hear from us about removing barriers to renewable energy!
Another behind-the-scenes but important part of navigating renewables is financing – which is where MFCU comes in. While our major electric utility may not be going solar nearly as quickly as we’d like, individual homeowners and businesses are really jumping on the bandwagon (including via our Solarize program). But not every homeowner who wants to put up solar panels has the cash up front to do so. MFCU has two different loans for renewable energy, plus a super-helpful checklist for anyone considering solar and comparing bids from installers. (Side note – Paul researched the financial performance of solar, and turns out that, aside from being a climate-friendly choice, solar is also a smart investment from a strictly financial perspective. Cool! White paper to be published soon.) Rooftop solar is shiny and exciting, but of course using less energy in the first place is important too, which is why MFCU’s Home Energy Loan also works for energy efficiency upgrades (and they’re a key sponsor of our Energy Smart Challenge too – thanks MFCU!).
At the meetup, our tour of the renewable energy landscape was focused on solar, but there are other clean energy stories to be told. Wind is a potent source of power in Montana, though largely east of the Divide. Battery storage technology continues to improve. Several large buildings in downtown Missoula are heated geothermally with ground-source heat pumps. Historically a cheap supply of local coal has been a factor hindering greater clean energy development in our state, but we know coal is getting more expensive and renewables are getting cheaper. Let’s continue to do our part as individuals to expand renewables and advocate as a community for a level playing field for clean energy. Start by heading to the Clean Energy Fair next weekend to learn more, then we’ll see you on October 10th to talk more about community solar for Missoula!