Consumers hold key to energy future, Schweitzer says

The guv

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer speaks to an audience of about 100 people in Red Lodge on Monday.

RED LODGE — “It’s about the batteries, stupid.”

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he thought of using that phrase—which occurred to him the first time he drove an all-electric Tesla car—as the title for the book he published last year.

In the end he chose a longer and rather more prosaic title, “Power Up Energy: How the Coming Revolution Will Empower You, Free Us From Oil Wars and Make You a Buck or Two.”

In a Monday-night talk sponsored by the Red Lodge Forum for Provocative Issues, Schweitzer spoke of an energy future with consumers in the driver’s seat, relying on small-scale energy sources to meet their own needs and selling excess power to other nearby consumers.

The forum, moved from the Cafe Regis to the larger Red Lodge Senior and Community Center, attracted just over 100 people, including Schweitzer’s former lieutenant governor, John Bohlinger, who drove up from Billings.

The event happened to coincide with the opening day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Eight years earlier, at the convention that would nominate Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate, Schweitzer was a prime-time speaker and a rising star in the Democratic Party.

If he missed that larger stage, there was no sign of it Monday. Trim, tanned and goateed, the former governor and current board chairman of the Stillwater Mining Co. spoke with passion for more than an hour, then took questions for another half hour. If forum organizer Dick Nolan hadn’t stepped forward to close the evening, Schweitzer might still be taking questions.

Schweitzer wove in anecdotes of his early life on a Havre-area farm and his career as an international soil scientist to illustrate his ideas about the future of energy. Always a contrarian, he also defended oil-fracking technology and his support for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Driving that Tesla during a trip to California as governor, he said, he was told that the car’s battery stored enough power to drive 250 miles. He realized that was enough charge to meet an average home’s electricity needs for three days.

Consumers could use solar panels to generate all their electricity, store the excess power on their car battery and sell it back to the utility company or, eventually, directly to other consumers, he said.

And once you start generating your own electricity, Schweitzer said, speaking from experience, “Boy, you’re going to be really good at energy conservation. We could have a whole country that’s really good at energy conservation.”

It’s important to remember that there’s nothing new about a lot of these ideas, he said. In 1915 there were 34 companies making electric cars in the United States, he said, and the batteries in use then stored about the same amount of power as batteries do now. The internal combustion engine won out, but the technology was there for electric cars.

We’ve also been there already in terms of home energy production. Schweitzer said he once asked his father what the biggest change was after the Rural Electrification Administration finally brought power lines to the family farm in 1949.

After thinking about it for a while, Schweitzer said, his father responded, “Well, we could weld on the farm at a little higher temperature.”

That’s because the farm had been generating its own electricity with a windmill since 1923, as had tens of thousands of other farms scattered across the prairie. The only real problem back then, Schweitzer said, was the unreliability of batteries.

The room

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The Red Lodge Senior and Community Center was nearly full for Schweitzer’s speech. In true Montana fashion, Schweitzer and his former lieutenant governor, John Bohlinger, helped bring extra chairs into the room.

Batteries today are good and getting better, he said, and even if no substitute is found for lithium batteries, there is plenty of lithium to be had—”Don’t worry, I’ve done the math”—and prices for batteries, like prices for solar panels, continue to drop sharply.

To make the power supply system fair and efficient, Schweitzer said, there has to be real-time pricing, which means utilities would buy and sell power for what it’s worth at the moment. Power is always much cheaper at night when there is little demand, he said, so consumers could charge batteries at night and sell the excess power during the day.

Utilities will fight such changes, he said, but ultimately the ones able to adapt to modern conditions will be the ones that survive. Utilities could be conduits, charging small transaction fees to trabsmit power from one consumer to another, in the same way companies like Scotttrade charge small fees for online platforms that allow consumers to make their own investment decisions.

Schweitzer mocked those who blame environmentalists for the downturn in the coal industry, and he said Colstrip should be looking to the future instead of clinging to a vanishing past.

The government-built electrical transmission lines that run from Colstrip to Portland and Seattle could never be built in today’s regulatory environment, he said, so they present a huge opportunity. They could be used to transmit energy from wind farms in southeastern Montana and central Washington, where peak wind production occurs at different times of the day, providing much-needed balance in the supply of wind power.

And to balance out electric supplies even more, Schweitzer said, there are “pumped-storage” hydropower projects, like the one proposed near Martinsdale. That kind of power storage relies on water and gravity and has been used around the world for 130 years, Schweitzer said.

The world is going to make the transition to alternative energy long before fossil fuels are depleted— “We didn’t leave the Stone Age because we ran out of rock”—for the simple reason that alternative energy sources eventually will be cheaper and cleaner, he said, not because of environmental obstruction or government fiat.

Schweitzer talked at length about fracking and pipelines, in too much detail to go over his arguments here. His main point seems to be that people who support clean energy need to realize that fossil fuels are still going to be around for a while, and that opposition to their use should be based on facts, not emotion.

He said he gets frustrated with politicians who will not listen to the science of climate change, but he feels the same frustration with people who oppose pipelines and fracking based on similarly flimsy evidence.

For all that, Schweitzer elicited only one group-groan from the audience Monday—when he predicted that Donald Trump will be the next president. On the bright side, he said, Trump is likely to grow bored with the pace of governing and “government will be run by Republican bureaucrats, much as it was when Ronald Reagan was president.”

True, Trump might start a war, Schweitzer said, but Hillary Clinton could do the same just as easily.

He saved his optimism for the future of energy, telling his listeners, “You can change the world, I guarantee it. And the world will be a better place.

“We’re going to get there,” he said. “And America will lead the way.”

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