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2024 Montana Primary elections

Advocates, Economists Disagree On Challenges To Renewables In Montana

Wind turbines.
Wind turbines.

Coal powered energy does not behave like wind and solar energy. Economists at the University of Montana say this means extra costs are tacked on to renewable energy as demand for it grows. But renewable energy advocates are critical of this analysis.

The peak season for wind and solar energy production does not always line up with the peak demand for energy in Montana. That’s according to Paul Polzin, Director Emeritus with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

Polzin was among a handful of BBER economists presenting the 2018 Montana Economic Report in Helena, Tuesday.

Polzin says one of the most important long-term issues for the development of renewables is that unlike coal plants, which can crank out power all the time, renewables are more weather, and season, dependent.

“One of the real problems with switching from coal-fired to renewable is that we will not have sufficient power from renewables in the summer. This means that the electrical system may become much more unreliable when the wind doesn’t blow and sun doesn’t shine.”

For example, Polzin says Montana wind energy peaks in the winter, but falls off in the summer. He says the necessity of having other sources of energy that can quickly be turned on and off as a backup to renewables increase the energy’s cost.

But Jeff Fox, a policy manager for Renewable Northwest, questions this thinking. He says when there is excess power it can be sold to decrease utility prices. Fox also says the science behind storing that kind of energy is growing.

"Absolutely, you need that power to be available when customers demand it. And really, that's a question of energy storage. But unlike the pessimistic view given by BBER, energy storage costs are dropping rapidly.”

Fox says Montana, as well as the rest of the country, should aim to get more renewables into energy markets as fast as possible. He says in the long run they're cheaper and it reduces carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump announced tariffs on imported solar panels. The duties start  at 30 percent and drop down by about half that amount in four years. The Solar Energy Industries Association says this decision to make it more expensive to import solar cells and panels will prevent creation of about 23,000 jobs across the country.

Jeff Fox says he expects solar energy to continue growing in Montana, but the new tariffs will slow that growth.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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