Montana needs to catch up on renewable energy


Yesterday’s front-page article, “Conservation can likely meet power needs of Northwest states,” was timely and instructive. It feels great when clear solutions to our big problems become obvious.

Electrical generation, coal mines, climate change and endless coal trains have been in the news a lot lately. Coal use has dropped sharply and many older coal plants have already been shut down because of competition from natural gas and pollution problems. The scientific and political consensus around the world is that we must stop using fossil fuels. Here in Montana, there are big political and economic changes coming, and the major players are all scrambling to protect their turf.

I think that almost all of us acknowledge in our guts, if not in our ideological minds, that our climate is changing and changing for the worse. In the last few decades, we’ve seen Montana’s weather patterns shift. We’ve seen serious drought, dried-up forests (insect infestation), and low rivers. Our mountain snowpack is already affecting irrigation and recreation and will undoubtedly limit electrical generation from the dams in the future. Rainfall in the Golden Triangle has subtly changed, making wheat germination more difficult. Lifelong gardeners from around the state all say that we now experience warmer temperatures but also greater weather variability. We are all unconsciously making adjustments to the new reality even when we don’t face this growing problem directly. I worry that the changes are only starting, that we’ll see bigger effects in the years to come. We must plan for the future.

Our electrical needs can be met in a variety of ways. We’ve known for a long time that efficiency and conservation are the cheapest and most dependable methods of meeting our needs. Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel generation and is often a very good investment, but will mean a major shake-up in the coal and utility industries. The big, entrenched companies, however, are denying reality and fighting back. Most of their arguments are self-serving and often technically wrong, but they control the Legislature and seem to have the governor on their side.

There has already been a huge shift to renewable energy all around the world and in the United States. We are fortunate because the technical challenges have already been worked out elsewhere. The utilities in Montana continue to resist this change because of their investments in old technology, their guaranteed incomes (they are monopolies), and their conservative cultures.

Montana can catch up with the rest of the world. Fortunately, we have a political process to make changes when our leaders don’t lead. There is an initiative being circulated around the state to transition our electrical generation from coal to renewable energy. I-180 carefully lays out a gradual transition that allows the utilities to plan, that protects coal workers, and that allows communities to own their own systems. Petitions are available in every community and online at

The time for “business as usual” is past. We are too smart, too responsible, and too patriotic to let this challenge go unmet. Please sign a petition.

Jim Baerg