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Green Power in Montana

On the threshold of the 21st Century, Montana has a rare opportunity to inform people about the benefits of renewable energy and build the state's renewable energy industry at the same time. The need for an organized, focused effort to stimulate the market for solar energy technologies in Montana has never been greater, nor has the potential to increase the use of solar energy technologies ever been as bright.

This opportunity results from the concurrence of the state's move to deregulate the electric utility industry and a federal initiative promoting renewable energy. The U.S. government, electric utilities and businesses across the country recognize that renewable energy will play a major role in our energy future. It is estimated that the domestic photovoltaic industry, for example, will provide up to 15 percent (about 3,200 MWp) of new U.S. peak electricity generating capacity expected to be required in 2020.

Boosting demand for renewable energy systems will lower the cost of these technologies, making them accessible to more people.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Montana established a strong renewable energy tradition, focused on renewable energy demonstration and outreach programs managed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. With the repeal of federal solar tax credits and the ending of the state renewable energy grant program, interest in renewable energy declined. The continued availability of relatively cheap electric power in the state (6-7 cents/kWh) and the cost of solar energy technologies (as high as $10/watt) also worked against the widespread implementation of these technologies in Montana.

A new trend in the electric utility industry could change that. Montana, along with some 20 other states, has passed electric utility restructuring legislation. In adopting restructuring in 1997, lawmakers believed that the right of consumers to choose their electric power supplier serves the public interest. At the same time, they agreed that the interests of consumers should be protected through continued funding for public purpose programs for cost-effective local energy conservation, low-income customer weatherization and billing assistance, renewable resource projects and applications and research and development related to energy conservation and renewables.

Universal System Benefits

To assure continued funding for public purposes programs, the Legislature approved a Universal System Benefits Charge, or USBC. Montana's USBC is based on 2.4 percent of electric utilities' 1995 revenues. For the typical homeowner, the benefits charge is about $1 per month. Montana's USBC expenditures began in 1999.

Under the universal system benefits programs, all utility customers pay a charge (assessed at the meter) to ensure continued funding of energy conservation, renewables and low-income energy assistance programs. (The universal system benefits program is spelled out in 69-8-402 of Montana Codes Annotated.)

The Legislature also established a minimum annual funding requirement for low income energy bill and weatherization assistance at 17 percent of each utility's annual universal system benefits funding level. The annual charge for customers with loads greater than 1000 kilowatts is the lesser of $500,000 or .9 mills per kilowatt hour purchased.

Utilities and large customers receive credit toward their universal system benefits obligation for their internal programs. If a utility's or a large customer's credit does not satisfy the annual funding requirement, then it must make a payment to the universal systems benefit fund or the universal energy assistance fund. Cooperatives may collectively pool their credits statewide. Investor-owned utilities and cooperatives must file annual reports relating to universal systems benefits to the transition advisory committee created by this bill.

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Distributed Generation

Electric utility restructuring will almost certainly spark significant changes in the technologies used for electricity generation. Today's dominant generation technology is based on the steam turbine, which is no more efficient today than it was in the early 1960s. Early deregulation efforts already are advancing a wave of innovative technologies that boost efficiency, increase productivity, and reduce pollution. Yet deregulation is a necessary but insufficient step for achieving ongoing innovation in the electricity industry. Policies that remove other barriers to distributed generation are needed.

While electric utility restructuring has preoccupied utility managers over the last five years, distributed generation will potentially have even greater impacts on the future role of electric distribution utilities. Distributed generation includes the use of solar photovoltaics, wind generators, micro-turbines, and fuel cells by utility customers to produce electricity.

In formulating a renewable energy strategy for Montana, it is imperative to consider the larger issue of distributed generation. Large central plants that distribute energy through a network of transmission and distribution wires in the United States have provided reliable, low-cost energy since the 1930s. The economies of scale in electric generation facilities was the driving force for the creation of this centralized generation model.

But electric utility restructuring, environmental externalities, and improvements in small-scale generation technology are among the factors causing many energy experts to champion distributed generation alternatives. The restructuring of the electric utility industry has led to fundamental changes in the relationships among providers, regulators and consumers.

The future of distributed generation in Montana and the nation will depend on such issues as interconnection standards (both technological and regulatory), policies governing fair market access, by-pass fees, and consumer protection. Although electric utility restructuring legislation has been passed in Montana, there are still major issues to address to assure that distributed generation is not impeded. Renewable energy and distributed generation will go hand in hand into Montana's future.

How Renewable Energy Benefits Montana

Renewable energy can play a key role in creating a clean, reliable energy future in Montana. The benefits are many and varied. Consumers who use these technologies will benefit directly and immediately. More important, efforts underway to promote solar, wind, geothermal and small-scale hydropower lay the groundwork for substantially increased energy and environmental benefits in the future as costs come down and renewable energy use becomes more widespread.

Using renewable energy produces immediate environmental benefits. Electricity is often produced by burning fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas. The combustion of these fuels releases a variety of pollutants into the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxide (NOx), which create acid rain and smog.

Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is a significant component of greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions could significantly contribute to altering the world's environment, which may lead to the global warming predicted by many atmospheric scientists.

The combustion of fossil fuels releases over 6 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. The United States alone is responsible for 23 percent of these emissions. In order to reduce pollution and prevent damage to the environment and public health, the United States is pursuing a course to dramatically reduce its consumption of fossil fuels. Fortunately, clean renewable energy sources can help meet rising energy demands.

Renewable energy is an excellent alternative to fossil fuels for many reasons:

  • It is clean energy. For example, even when the emissions related to solar cell manufacturing are counted, photovoltaic generation produces less than 15 percent of the carbon dioxide from a conventional coal-fired power plant. Using solar energy to replace the use of traditional fossil fuel energy sources can prevent the release of pollutants into the atmosphere.
  • Using solar energy to supply a million homes with energy would reduce CO2 emissions by 4.3 million tons per year, the equivalent of removing 850,000 cars from the road.
  • Renewable energy uses fewer natural resources than conventional energy sources. Using energy from sunlight, wind, water and the heat of the earth can replace the use of stored energy in natural resources such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Energy industry researchers estimate that the amount of land required for photovoltaic (PV) cells to produce enough electricity to meet all U.S. power needs is less than 60,000 square kilometers, or roughly 20 percent of the area of Arizona.
  • PV panels can be integrated into building surfaces for the production of power, eliminating additional land use. For example, the 100,000-square-foot roof of a typical discount retailer could produce more than a megawatt of solar electricity.
  • Solar and wind energy systems need less space to produce a megawatt of electricity than coal-fired power when the land devoted to mining is factored in.
  • Solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy are renewable. Some scientists and industry experts estimate that renewable energy sources, such as solar, can supply up to half of the world's energy demand in the next 50 years, even as energy needs continue to grow.

Annual Emissions Avoided in Montana

A two-kilowatt photovoltaic systems in Montana will:

  • Avoid emissions of .68 lbs of NOx and 3,643 lbs. of CO2.
  • Reduce carbon dioxide emissions equal to driving 4,553 miles in an average passenger car.
  • Reduce carbon dioxide emissions equal to the carbon dioxide absorbed by 1 acre of trees in one year.

The increased use of renewable energy technologies could also create high-technology jobs in manufacturing and in the electrical and construction industries.


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