MISSOULA — A small solar project at three Missoula high schools completed last year by NorthWestern Energy represented a capital investment of $1 million, and it placed a preferred model of renewable energy front and center.
While the project was little more than a demonstration in the wonders of renewable energy, it could see the state’s utility giant work with the city and county of Missoula on their own goals of achieving 100% clean electricity across the metro area by 2030.
“We feel like there’s opportunities to work with communities on their clean energy initiatives,” said Steve Clawson with NorthWestern Energy. “We’re going to explore those opportunities with the city and county of Missoula. There’s ways we can help move those initiatives forward.”
Driven by what they described as a moral imperative and public demand, the city and county last April adopted a resolution to achieve 100% clean electricity across the urban area by 2030.
The move positioned Missoula as the first city in Montana to send a strong message of dissatisfaction to Helena, where legislative support for coal holds strong and denial of climate change lingers.
It also aligned the city and county with hundreds of other local governments across the U.S. that have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint. But signing a resolution may be the easy part, as the city and county are now looking to NorthWestern to help them move closer to their goals.
“When I think about our 100% clean electricity goals, we need to move forward in several different arenas to achieve that,” said Diana Maneta, the county’s energy conservation and sustainability coordinator.
“We need more utility-scale renewable energy systems, more community-scale renewable energy systems, and we need to accelerate energy efficiency. In terms of what we might work on together, I see potential in all those arenas. But specifically what that looks like, I’m not sure yet.”
At last month’s State of the Community address, Clawson highlighted the three solar demonstration projects at Missoula’s high schools, saying they represented an opportunity to change the way customers and the utility interact.
But Clawson said the demonstration project also provided NorthWestern a chance to “understand how to integrate this type of resource into the grid, and how we’d deal with that in the future.”
“There could be lots of different things we can look at from a technology standpoint, but we haven’t identified what that is yet,” Clawson said this week. “We’re working very closely with the city and the county to get to a point where we can explore the different things we might try. But we really haven’t got to the point where we’ve identified anything specifically.”
Maneta agreed that talks with NorthWestern are in the early stages, though she expects to see progress this year. That could result in a formal partnership between the utility and local government, followed by future collaboration.
While the demonstration project at the schools marks a positive step, Maneta said solutions will have to be much larger if renewable energy will stand as the single source of local electricity by the next decade.
“The school projects were a great thing, but what we’re really looking at is much bigger than that,” she said. “When our goal is 100%, we’re talking about a very different scale. We’re not talking about more demonstrations or pilot-scale projects, we’re talking big utility-scale projects at this point.”
Both the city and the county also have established goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, and both have completed an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions to set a baseline measurement.
On the city side, the study found that municipal government emitted more than 8,600 metric tons of CO2 equivalents in 2009. The county’s study found that its operations emitted more than 7,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2016.
Maneta said the county intends to make progress this year on both its clean electricity and carbon neutrality goals.
“Our hope this year is to make progress toward both of those,” she said. “This year, we’re going to initiate putting together a climate action plan with respect to that carbon neutrality goal. In terms of our 100% clean electricity in partnership with the city, that’s really what we’ve been talking about, and I’m hopeful we can make progress on that with NorthWestern Energy.”
The utility also is taking early steps to begin curbing energy consumption. This year, NorthWestern will begin replacing 43,000 high-pressure sodium lights across Montana with LEDs – a project that will cost $24 million.
The LEDs use 50% less electricity and last nearly three times longer than their sodium predecessors. NorthWestern owns 1,800 street lights in Missoula and roughly 600 lights in Missoula County.
“One of the things we’re working with the city on right now is the conversion of the street lights in our street-lighting districts,” said Clawson. “That’s an area that will provide immediate savings. There will be other opportunities to work with the city and the county.”