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Montana Green Power

Your Guide to Renewable Energy in Montana


The following two-part interview appeared in the June 20 and June 27 (2001) issues of the Whitehall Ledger. It is used here with permission of the publisher.

Renewable Energy Makes Economic Sense, 
Says Sage Mountain Center Founder 

Chris Borton and partner Linda Welsh have owned and operated Sage Mountain Center, located in the Toll Mountain area west of Whitehall, since 1991. Sage Mountain Center offers training in personal inner growth, physical health and sustainable living. The sustainable living portion of the Sage Mountain experience offers a wide variety of advice and courses on a range of topics, including solar home design, alternative building materials, solar electricity and more. Borton, a Georgia native, is the fourth generation of his family to work in construction.

Part I

Sage Mountain Center co-founder Chris Borton.Q: There’s a lot of talk about energy conservation right now, but some people seem disinterested or almost fearful of the topic. Why are people uncomfortable with the concept of conservation?

A: I think conservation is generally seen as deprivation, or having to do without. If we think in a larger context, part of being an American is independence, and having abundance…having as much as we want when we want it.

We’re huge consumers. We consume more energy than any other country in the world. Anytime a word comes into our vocabulary that has to do with changing our life and having to do with less, our tendency is to immediately resist that.

Q: What do you think has to happen to change that mindset?

A: I think the first thing is for people to make the connection…to connect the energy we use with where that energy comes from. In other words, when we turn on a light, think…where is that power coming from, how is it produced, how much does it cost to produce? People seeing the connection of our everyday living and seeing how it relates to the bigger picture of our community, our state and our country.

Q: What has to happen for that kind of understanding to begin to take place?

A: I think generally in the past, coming out of the 1980s, there was a lot of idealism about solar energy and wind power and how it would save us with of all of us living happily ever after.

But what we’re seeing now is kind of interesting because it is starting to hit us in our wallets. I believe it is our wallets that are going to cause us to change and think differently about conservation.

Q: Speaking of wallets, in 1997 the Montana Legislature passed an energy deregulation bill. The law is being phased in, and energy deregulation will hit residential consumers next year. How do you see energy deregulation playing out in Montana?

A: My gut feeling is we already know there are going to be increases – 50 to 100 percent – and as it looks now it’s going to be stuck on us. Energy costs are going to get a little higher, and we’ll get used to that, and a little higher and we’ll get used to that…

Our power bills are definitely going to be going up. I think all that will increase our awareness of our connection with where we get our power from and how we use our power, and it is going to make us generally more conscious. And I think if we are conscious of these things we’re more inclined to act on them.

Q: What is your response to President Bush’s national energy plan?

A: It needs a lot of work. Right now, I believe the government is seeking comment about where renewables are perceived by the general public. I think it’s crucial we do provide feedback to increase the usage of renewable energy in his energy plan.

Obviously there is a strong tendency toward fossil fuels in the plan. I think that’s very bogus. It’s going in the wrong direction.

Q: In a realistic sense, what can government do to address the energy supply crisis?

A: I just read where Governor Judy Martz is encouraging state agencies to conserve, and I see that as a positive gesture. I think what we really need – what the general public and small businesses really need – are education and incentives. Two simple terms.

Q: What kind of education and incentives?

A: Education, which is part of what we do at Sage Mountain Center, is to teach people that they don’t need to use as much energy as they’re using. They can do their dishes, do their laundry and heat their house all to the comfort level they are used to, but using a tremendous amount less of energy by using more energy efficient appliances.

Incentives could be as simple as something like rebates for appliances and light bulbs. It’s easy for states to plop down $100 million in tax breaks for the development of fossil fuel power plants. Why not take the $100 million and distribute compact fluorescent bulbs to an entire state, and watch the power consumption drop tremendously. Then we wouldn’t have to build new polluting power plants.

Q: What kind of specific activities is Sage Mountain Center doing to promote energy conservation?

A: We’re doing a collection of seminars geared toward education on solar electricity…how and why to incorporate that into your business or your home. We’re looking at passive solar home design, energy efficiency in building and construction techniques. We also offer free tours of the facility here at Sage Mountain Center, where people can see these super energy efficient measures.

Q: Right now we’re looking at the new home you’re building at Sage Mountain Center. What are some of the super energy efficient measures you’re building into the structure?

A: The first thing is the orientation of the building. It’s oriented to take maximum advantage of the sun’s heating capabilities in the winter. We are creating a very well-insulated shell of the house. We’re using plastered straw bale construction, which has an R-value of about 40. It’s a very renewable material…we get it fifteen minutes away at the Smith ranch. We can see our walls grow one season and the next season we’re building with them.

After building a very well-insulated home we include systems in the home, and we try to use the sun and wind as much as possible for electricity and heating.

We’re in the process of putting up a wind generator. We’ve been living on 100 percent solar electricity for the last ten years. Sage Mountain Center has never paid a power bill.

We’ve gone with an in-floor central heating system, also called radiant floor or radiant heat system, for the central heating system. That system circulates hot water through tubing in the floor, and that hot water is heated from the sun. Pumps circulate the water throughout the floor, and it is the cleanest and cheapest form of central heating you can have right now when it is put in during new construction.

Our solar electric system consists of a solar array outside. Sunlight hits those panels and excites electrons, and the electrons get channeled into a battery bank, and the battery bank is used for nighttime electricity. And in the daytime it’s recharged by sun.

All the lights throughout the house are new compact florescent lights. When you say florescent lights most people think of white, pasty, buzzing, flickering lights. The new generation of compact florescent lights has not one of those unpleasant features. We also use LEDs (light emitting diodes) which is the absolute most efficient lighting right now.

Q: These are all built-in costs to the home, as well. How much does all this stuff cost up front, and how much do you save in the long run?

A: Generally, for appliances, the more efficient the appliance is, the more expensive it is up front. But the operating cost over the life of that appliance will be much, much lower than a standard appliance. An energy efficient appliance will save you a tremendous amount of money in the long run.

For example, a compact fluorescent bulb will cost about seven dollars, and last about seven to ten years. One bulb will save about forty bucks over the life of that bulb. One, because you won’t be changing light bulbs as much. Incandescent bulbs last only a year or so. Two, these bulbs use much less electricity than incandescents. I call incandescent lights "heaters," not lights. Ninety-percent of an incandescent light bulb is heat, and ten percent is light.

For construction of a new home, generally energy efficient measures add about ten percent to the cost of a home. But they can save as much as forty percent on the operation of the home.

(Next week: Borton talks about the "How to’s" of solar power, his vision of energy use in America and sources for more information of renewable energy.)

Part II

Chris Borton, of Sage Mountain Center, discussed the concept of energy conservation, Sage Mountain Center programs and seminars, and overall benefits of energy conservation last week in part one of the "Catching Up With" interview. Part two of the interview focuses more on the "how to’s" of solar power and possible future use of renewable energy.

Q: How does solar power figure in the general concept of renewable energy?

A: First, we need to make the distinction between the types of solar energy. There are three types of solar energy available to homes. One is passive solar space heating. That’s the heating of air.

Second is solar electricity. That’s the creation of electricity from sunlight.

Third is solar hot water. That’s where water is heated from the heat of the sun.

Q: Do solar panels work for all three of those functions?

A: It depends on what kind of panels you’re referring to. Solar hot water panels can help offset your heating bills, whether it’s forced air, natural gas or propane.

Solar space heating or passive solar home design can also offset heating bills.

Solar electricity cannot help offset home heating bills. It can only help offset your electric bills. A lot of people think that if they put some solar panels on their house, their heating bill’s going to go way down. Won’t happen. Solar electricity can never be used in conjunction with electric heat, because it takes so much electricity to create heat that it would be extremely inefficient to use solar electric panels for heating. So solar electric panels should only be used to offset electric bills as it relates to lights, appliances, power tools, things like that.

Q: If someone is interested in learning more about solar panels, what is their first step and how do they proceed?

A: First step is to talk to us at Sage Mountain Center (laughs). We teach a lot of classes, we have a lot of resources and a lot of connections for people who are interested in learning more about this stuff. The Internet is flooded with information about every type of solar power. There are lots of great books and videos out there for people interested in learning more about solar or wind power.

Q: What is the best Internet site for solar energy and renewable energy information?

A: The best website right now is That’s a new website, and it is the most comprehensive site for the state. It has all kinds of renewable energy information, and also has the latest news from around the country, and keeps you up-to-date on legislative actions and grants that are available, and has links to several other good renewable energy sites.

And attend our Sage Mountain seminars.

Q: If solar panels make so much sense, why aren’t they on every home. Why aren’t they standard features on new homes?

A: They will be at some point.

Right now, the cost of solar electric panels is still pretty expensive. That’s why most people aren’t using it now…because of the initial investment. The analogy I like to use, however, is the comparison between solar panels and a new SUV. We’ll go out and spend $20,000 to $40,000 for a new car or SUV, and if you think about it, that automobile is probably the worst investment you’ll ever make. It costs thousands of dollars a year in fuel, it costs us for insurance, and as soon as it leaves the lot the price drops immediately. So as an investment, a vehicle is a real bad choice.

Let’s compare that to a solar electric system. The cost is anywhere between $7,000 and $17,000. It’s an investment. But this investment can offset all or almost all of your electric bills for at least fifty years.

One thing to keep in mind about renewable energy is that the United States is basically still in the Dark Ages. When we look at places like Europe, they are so completely advanced and ahead of us, it’s embarrassing. Even if we compare ourselves to developing countries in places like Africa, the United States is still way behind. Because developing countries don’t have the (energy) grid, these remote forms of energy are clean and self sufficient and just springing up all over the place.

Q: Montana has plenty of wind, but not a lot of wind power. Why isn’t there more power generated from wind, and how practical is wind power?

A: Wind power is extremely practical in Montana. We are the fifth windiest state in the country, and Montana has some of the windiest areas in the country.

The reason it isn’t popular right now is basically because the whole energy market has been dominated by coal and hydro.

As far as wind is concerned, that’s changing very rapidly. I know of a number of site assessments taking place for wind farms in Montana. And wind power is going to happen here. The first one is already going up right now on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. That’s one of the windiest spots. Livingston is another key area, of course, as are places like Anaconda.

Q: Is a wind farm practical in the Whitehall and Jefferson Valley area?

A: Yes. Absolutely.

Q: Montana Power offers home efficiency audits. Should homeowners look into these?

A: The Montana Power energy audits are an excellent way for customers to have their house assessed. It’s free, and everyone should have it done, for sure. There’s nothing to lose.

Q: What’s a fuel cell, how do they work, and how practical are they?

A: Fuel cells operate somewhat like a regular car battery. They require hydrogen, which is transformed into electrical energy and some heat.

Right how, of course, there is a lot of research being done on fuel cells, mostly for vehicles. There are fuel cell vehicles out there. They’re starting to be made on the commercial market, and we’re going to see them more in the residential market. They’ll be treated something like a generator. A fuel cell, however, isn’t considered a renewable or clean form of energy, unless the hydrogen comes from a clean source. Right now, the majority of fuel cells that are out there can use propane or natural gas. They extract the hydrogen from a fossil fuel.

There’s a lot more work being done now to extract that hydrogen from water. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and we can extract hydrogen from water. And that’s going to be the future of energy production from a hydrogen source, in my opinion.

Q: Hydrogen, as in the hydrogen bomb? How is hydrogen converted into energy?

A: I’m not a chemist or a physicist, this is just stuff I’ve learned over the years. But yes, people think of hydrogen as something blowing up, like the hydrogen bomb.

However, we’re dealing with very explosive, very flammable materials every day when we use gasoline for our cars, propane in our barbecues, natural gas for cooking. Those are potentially very dangerous materials.

Hydrogen is sort of a new fuel for us, and the more we’re exposed to it, the more comfortable we’ll be with it.

Q: Let’s look ahead 100 years. How will the construction and operation of an average home differ from homes now?

A: I can imagine the home being predominately built from recycled materials…recycled from anything…tires, plastics, metals, and you might see paper and cardboard created into lumber. There have been some big advances there.

I can imagine the home being built in harmony with its environment, where the water that comes in is monitored and the water that goes out is monitored to make sure it’s just as clean as when it came in. The fuel heating the home and supplying electricity for the home will also be clean from the sun, and from hydrogen extracted from water. Our vehicles will be zero emissions, and will be powered by the water and sun. Incidentally, this is happening now, only on a small scale.

Q: What are three simple things people can do to start conserving energy as soon as they put down this newspaper?

A: The first cheapest and most effective thing you can do is change out your light bulbs. Any light bulb you have on for more than one hour per day…change that light bulb to a compact fluorescent. It’s a small investment you’ll make initially (usually about $100 to replace all the light bulbs in a home), but you’ll see immediate results in your power bill.

The second thing is seal up cracks in your house. Infiltration is a big energy waster…heat and cold going in and out around doors and windows. The typical door that you feel the air coming in and blowing around the seams of the door is the equivalent of a six-inch round hole in your wall. So with every door and window that is the equivalent of a six-inch hole you are essentially heating the outdoors, or cooling the outdoors if you run an air conditioner.

The third thing is a cliché, but you should turn off lights when you’re not in the room, and replace your inefficient appliances with new ones.

Sage Mountain Center
79 Sage Mountain Trail
Whitehall, MT 59795 
Phone/Fax 406.494.9875
Email: [email protected]


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