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Clean Energy Fair Comes To Missoula

Local and national renewable energy advocates are saying the country needs to make sweeping changes in how they pay their energy bills. And those changes don’t involve a monthly statement from the power company.

They’ll be presenting those ideas during the fourth annual Clean Energy Fair on Saturday in Missoula.

In addition to workshops and demonstrations on the latest in residential solar, heat and wind energy systems, Ben Brouwer with Montana Renewable Energy Association, will talk about efforts to expand net-metering programs for electrical energy customers.

Brouwer says, "A net-meter is really just an electric meter that can spin both ways. So the utility customer, in this case, gets to keep the grid connected as a backup. But when they're producing more energy than they need, say on a really sunny day, the meters run backwards and they build up a credit with the utility that they can use at night or on a cloudy day.”

The Montana legislature approved net-metering in 1999 with nearly unanimous support, allowing bill payers to generate up to fifty kilowatts with residential solar panels and heat pumps, which is more than adequate for most family’s needs.

But Brouwer wants the legislature to increase the cap to one hundred kilowatts. He says small businesses, churches, large farms and schools are bumping their heads on those 50 kilowatt caps. He also says it’s time for Montana to allow neighborhoods to generate energy together.

"In particularly, we'd like to see the legislature pass a neighborhood net-metering law which would allow multiple utility customers to buy into a community solar array; say on a neighborhood school, a church or a single larger wind turbine on the edge of town; and then receive a credit on their bill according to how much energy the project generates each month, and according to how much of that project they actually own. This would be a way for renters, for people with a roof that just isn't right for solar, to actually buy into a renewable energy system and get some benefits on their bills each month."

The state Senate killed a neighborhood net-metering bill in February of 2013. Opponents of the bill, including Northwestern Energy, Montana’s largest electric utility, said at the time that the bill would unfairly shift some electricity costs from net-metered customers to other customers who weren’t part of the program.

According to Brouwer, "Historically, monopoly utilities like Northwestern Energy have made their money by building big power plants and transmission lines and around the country right now a lot of utilities are looking at rooftop solar as unwelcome competition ultimately affecting their bottom line."

Tyson Slocum, with consumer advocacy group Public Citizen in Washington D.C., agrees with Brouwer. He says, "There's a lot of political barriers that are being erected to really unleashing these technology innovations."

Slocum will also be presenting during the Clean Energy Fair. He says electric customers across the country have the ability to get off the utility grid and believes renewable energy is a viable option. He say fossil fuels, such as coal, need to phase out a quickly as possible.

"Nothing against the hard-working, good folks who are working in very well-paying jobs in the coal mining industry, but the fact of the matter is, there's new technologies that can deliver electricity more affordably, more reliably, and with better value for consumers. And we owe it to our economy to ensure that those technologies have an equal footing in the marketplace."

According to the national mining association, Montana ranks 7th in the country for coal production, totalling about five percent of coal mined in the U.S.

Slocum think states can pass legislation that allows people to generate their own electricity without harming households that can’t install solar power.

Meanwhile, Montana Renewable Energy’s Brouwer hopes to gather enough support for another neighborhood net-metering bill in time for the state legislative session in 2015.

The Montana Clean Energy Fair happens at Caras Park in Missoula, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m Saturday. There is no charge for admission.

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