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Montana news about the environment, natural resources, wildlife, climate change and more.

Sweet Grass County could be a model for energy efficiency efforts in schools

Sam Spector stands with solar panels installed in 2020 at Sweet Grass County High School in Montana.
Ellis Juhlin
Sam Spector stands with solar panels installed in 2020 at Sweet Grass County High School in Montana.

Along I-90 between Bozeman and Billings, a field of solar panels borders the interstate under the backdrop of the Crazy Mountains. Those panels help power Sweet Grass County High School for its 160 students.

“Here's our solar panels. They’re next to the interstate. It's a 50 kilowatt ground-mount system,” says Sam Spector.

Spector is the school facilities manager. He started doing energy upgrades almost a decade ago like retrofitting lights in the gym, optimizing heating and ventilation systems and he oversaw the solar panel installation in 2020.

“That solar array right now is producing 25% of our consumption needs.”

Spector says the school consumes the same amount of energy as around 45 houses, so it’s a big utility bill.

Inside the school, he walked through the hallways, pointing out LED bulbs that reduce lighting energy use by 90%, and a timer knob that automatically turns off the exhaust hood in a cooking class.

From changes big and small, he’s whittled away at the school’s energy consumption.

“All the energy efficiency upgrades we're saving based on the prices. And where we were, we're saving $48,000 a year. So that's an extra teacher,” Spector says.

Climate change can be a controversial subject in rural conservative places like Sweet Grass County, but Spector says everyone understands saving money.

“You don't want to talk about the environmental impacts of things because it's such a divisive way to talk about things,” he says.

Schools across Montana may soon look to replicate Sweet Grass County’s energy efficiency success.

Sweet Grass High School
Ellis Juhlin
Sweet Grass High School

Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality submitted a list of 15 projects in response to the Biden Administration's callout to fund work to reduce carbon emission.

Clean energy advocates have clashed with conservative state leaders over what to prioritize for funding and what the role of government is in addressing climate change.

Gov. Greg Gianforte has said he wants to see emission reductions that focus on optional projects, not new regulations.

“There are some very practical, pragmatic programs that are really needed in our communities, particularly enhancing energy efficiency in schools is a good one to work on,” Gianforte said.

The state is planning on asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for somewhere between $10-75 million to create a pool of grants to pay for school energy audits and infrastructure upgrades.

In the Golden Triangle, the Big Sandy high school that was built in the 1930s is in need of updates. Dan Schrock is the school superintendent. He says it needs new windows, digital thermostats and a better boiler, just to name a few things.

“It's so bad that we actually have to turn our heat off to try to regulate the heat, as opposed to just simply turning the thermostats down because they're not in calibration,” Schrock says.

But many districts can’t pay for major infrastructure updates without help.

“You can only 'do more with less' for so long before you're actually doing less with less and you’re compounding the actual cost of that deferred maintenance down the road,” he says.

Shrock says the school has considered putting out a levy to address deferred maintenance, but he sees that as a last resort.

“It's not an easy time for the American farmer and the Montana farmer.”

The state’s proposed grant pool could help offset these kinds of school infrastructure costs. And do it in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and utilities bills too.

The EPA has said it will prioritize funding projects that benefit low income or disadvantaged communities, include workforce development and are “shovel ready,” meaning they can begin as soon as funding rolls out.

It’s now up to the state to submit the application, requesting those dollar amounts. The federal government is expected to pick projects to fund sometime this summer.

Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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