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Montana Dems: Meet CO2 Limits With Conservation, Renewables

Colstrip power plant, Colstrip Montana.
Flicker User ambib (CC-BY-NC)
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The coal power generators at Colstrip are the single biggest source of CO2 emissions in Montana.

As the State of Montana grapples to find ways of reducing its carbon dioxide emissions under proposed new federal rules, a collection of business people, scientists, and Democratic lawmakers is pushing the incoming legislature to put more renewable energy to work as part of the solution.  The group is nudging the Republican-controlled legislature to take small steps.

In the current political climate, minority Democrats know that the odds of passing major climate change legislation are slim to none.  But a proposal by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reduce carbon emissions 21 percent by the year 2030 might force the state to take action.

The state’s coal industry and electric power producers say cutting carbon emissions by more than one-fifth could require Draconian measures like closing one of the state’s coal-fired power plants.  At a news conference today, Missoula state Senator Dick Barrett, a Democrat, disagreed.

"We can do that almost exclusively through renewables and efficiency," Barrett said. "By complying with the plan in that way, we’re creating all kinds of opportunity for people in Montana, both in the area of efficiency and renewables. So we definitely think this is a win-win kind of a policy for Montana, and that’s what we’ll be working for in the legislature during the coming session," said Barrett.

The vision that Barrett and the others shared today would try to meet the EPA carbon reduction rule by reducing energy use through conservation, and using economic incentives to increase the state’s renewable energy portfolio.  The group was short on specific proposals, but Missoula Democratic Senator Sue Malek mentioned one idea that was voted down in 2013, expanding Montana’s “net-metering” allowance, to allow consumers who have their own solar or wind generators to sell more of their excess power.

Malek explains that, “right now our net metering only allows one meter, and is very limited in the amount of energy that you can use to lower your bills, so for instance in Missoula we built a parking garage and the amount of energy that’s generated with the solar panels there are not eligible for reducing the bills for that project.”

A bill to expand net-metering died in the Senate in 2013 on a close vote.  NorthWestern Energy, Montana’s largest electric utility, claimed net metering unfairly shifts the cost of power production to customers who don’t have their own renewable energy systems.  Now that the state faces pressure from the federal government to do something about carbon emissions, Barrett, Malek, and others hope the legislature will view these kind of renewable energy incentives more favorably.

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