Opinion: Why the renewable-energy initiative makes sense


Northern Plains Resource Council

Wind turbines, like those seen here at Judith Gap, already generate 48.1 percent of Denmark’s domestic electricity supply.

Brad Molnar ended The Billings Outpost’s run with an op-ed that demeaned ballot Initiative 180. We were exasperated by how little he faced facts.

I-180 would require Montana’s Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) to gradually supply 80 percent of their power from “eligible renewable resources.” That includes wind, sun, geothermal or post-2005 additions to hydroelectric facilities.

Does Molnar still deny our need:

♦ to prevent crop loss caused by climate change,
♦ to reduce health risks from disease-bearing insects moving to areas that are becoming warmer, and
♦ to avoid job loss in agriculture, skiing, fishing, and other economic sectors affected by global warming?

Contrary to Molnar, our current 15 percent of “eligible renewable resources” will count toward the 80 percent goal. After NorthWestern Energy puts 23 percent more renewable energy on its system (by 2025), I-180 will count its recently purchased dams toward that goal.

Yes, I-180 accommodates power from the dams when that output, additional renewable energy output and power from the dams combine to equal 80 percent. The language of I-180, section 3(4) is so clear. Why would Molnar and NorthWestern falsely claim the dams, etc., won’t count toward utilities reaching the mandate?

I-180 caps transition costs to renewable energy. They are held to 2 percent increase in electricity prices. If adding renewables raises rates more than 2 percent, then utilities need not put them in. Contrary to what Molnar dreads, that consumer protection is unlikely to generate a court challenge.

That 2 percent cap is similar to Colorado’s court-tested law. Their utilities can install renewable energy to meet their court-approved 20 percent and 30 percent renewable energy standards: much higher than Montana’s current 15 percent requirement. We will get a big boost if we can muster political will to go beyond one-sided diatribes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado say the United States could reduce carbon pollution from electricity generation by 80 percent at less than 2 percent over 2012 costs if the U.S. switched from a regional to a national electrical system by 2030.

Also, Molnar picks worst-case scenarios for the cost of renewables. Our Midwestern utilities are signing wind power contracts for 2.5 cents/kWh. In 2015, a solar developer sells NV Energy (Nevada, a Warren Buffet-owned company) electricity for 3.87 cents/kWh. Austin Energy, a municipal utility, buys solar power for under 4 cents/kWh in Texas. Compare that to 5.8 cents or 6.455 cents/kWh for Colstrip power. Coal generated power cannot compete.

Transitioning to clean electricity not only complies with I-180 and America’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan. It saves consumers money without factoring in cost-saving innovations and storage inventions that soon will come online.

Molnar fears that I-180 will strand consumers with billions in costs from shuttered coal plants prior to their full depreciation. We don’t think so. The gradual I-180 transition to 80 percent renewables over 33 years gives utilities time to depreciate their assets. Labor has time to retire, retrain, and adjust. This time period will protect fossil fuel worker pensions when coal companies like Alpha Natural Resources go belly-up.

We can counter coal industry attempts to convince bankruptcy courts to grant huge bonuses to a few top executives for attempting to bail their companies out of bankruptcy. Alpha Resources executives got bonuses of $3 million to $11 million by requesting approval for cuts in medical and life insurance benefits for 4,580 non-union miners and their spouses, and for requesting that 6,670 active non-union employees be ineligible for retirement benefits.

Xcel Energy in Colorado found that renewables produced a new forecasting system that “already saved its customers more than $41 million in avoided fuel costs.” Wind power doesn’t use fuel. Molnar’s concern for providing load-matching capability for renewable power paints an incomplete picture. Coal plants have their own version of the same problems. We can’t easily scale them back. Natural gas and hydro resources are used to match demand for coal-fired generation too.

True, wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Yet, they don’t stop simultaneously either.

Wind turbines generate 48.1 percent of Denmark’s domestic electricity supply. That country recently produced 140 percent of its energy needs, so Denmark exported power to its neighbors. Xcel Energy had 54 percent of its electricity for an entire day in October 2015 supplied by the wind. Colorado added 0.399 GW of wind electric generation capacity in 2015. That brought its total to 2.992 GW. By comparison, Montana has 2.3 GW of coal-fired generating capacity.

Hawaii hit these renewable marks in 2015, way above its 15 percent requirement for 2015. We see this is comparable with Colorado’s experience.

♦ Hawaii Island had a high of 68 percent for the month of December.
♦ Maui County totaled 63 percent in April.
♦ Oahu outputted 42 percent during May.
♦ Island renewables produced 23.2 percent of its three utilities’ output.

Hawaii renewables came from wind power, waste-to-energy, biomass, geothermal, hydro, biofuels and solar (both utility-scale and customer-sited rooftop systems).

Because there is no fuel cost in solar and wind power, Montana industries can’t compete with businesses in the 21 states already requiring more green electrons in their generation mix than do Montana utilities. California and New York have committed to 50 percent clean energy, Hawaii and Palo Alto, Calif., to 100 percent Denver to 80 percent Others are rejecting fuel-generated power. Yet, contrary to what Molnar suggests, businesses with high energy usage will move from Montana if we don’t introduce renewables.

Montana utilities can help coal communities by using existing power lines to carry renewable power from the Colstrip complex. It’s happening now as power lines near the Dave Johnson Power Station in Wyoming carry power from nearby wind turbines while some of that coal plant has been curtailed.

If you are a consumer using 1000 kWh of electricity a month—considerably more than the average of 720 to 760 kWh/month—I-180 will assess you just $2.40 a year for five years. Wouldn’t we all, for a cheap cup of coffee, provide training to displaced coal-miners, power plant employees, and train workers?

When Molnar speculated that this tax on electric generation will fall short, he failed to mention we get the same revenue from exported energy. That will put $20 million into job retraining.

We are stressing the planet’s capacity to absorb CO2 to protect coal-related jobs. Yet, we simultaneously do nothing to protect other sectors where global warming is afflicting Montana jobs.

I-180 recognizes we owe some help to the 437 primary workers effected by the I-180 mandated clean transition in Montana. While I-180 doesn’t address every job disruption occurring because of the clean transition, it is a serious start.

I-180 enhances railroad workers’ coverage under federal law with additional state benefits. Those mesh with federal support if fewer trains haul less coal. I-180 proposes a tax to replace coal tax revenue lost from our using less coal.

In 2017, it will cost you $0.26 a year (at usage of 1000 kWh a month) to replace lost coal tax trust revenue. This offsets what we now pay because we pay the current coal tax passed to us by utilities and coal companies. Your overall bill will decrease during our transition to no-fuel-cost electricity.

We are gathering signatures on the petition to put I-180 on the November ballot. If you’d like to sign, please send your address and phone to michaeldavidfried@gmail.com.

Russ Doty, a Montana native licensed to practice law here, wrote “Poles Apart,” a book on utility rate regulation published by the University of Montana Press. He drafted I-180. Three years ago he moved to Greeley, Colo.

Michael Fried worked as an electrical engineer in aerospace companies before getting his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan. He is now emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of California. He has lived in Billings for the last 13 years.

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