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Big Plans in Big Sky Country

by Brian J. Back
NW Current, April 24, 2006

Few politicians speak as boldly about energy policy as Brian Schweitzer.

Elected governor of Montana in late 2004, the rancher and agronomist polls as one of the most popular governors in the nation -- even as a Democrat in a longtime Republican stronghold. Known to sport a flair for theatrics, Schweitzer was recently spotlighted on "60 Minutes" for his plan to find clean ways to convert Montana's vast coal reserves into diesel fuel -- and in the process help wean America off of foreign oil.

Schweitzer recently spoke one-on-one with nwcurrent about his goal to make Montana the top-ranking U.S. state in wind energy production; the challenges of energy efficiency and climate change; and why deregulation was "the worst public policy decision" ever made in Big Sky Country.

NWC: You recently signed a bill requiring each public utility operating in the state to procure a minimum of 5 percent of retail electricity sales from eligible renewable energy sources beginning in 2008, increasing to 10 percent in 2010, and 15 percent in 2015 and thereafter. At least 75 MW of capacity must come from community renewable energy projects. How will you accomplish this?

Schweitzer: We recently cut the ribbon on the first big wind project. This first effort will accomplish 8.5 percent in one project. We'll have a dozen more wind projects built in the next few years. We'll easily get to that 15 percent. The Western Governors Association says they support 25 percent of the region's energy to come from renewables by 2025 [see "Governors plug efficiency, generation," nwcurrent, Oct. 31, 2005]. I believe we can accomplish that in Montana.

NWC: Which renewable energy technologies fit best into Montana's future?

Schweitzer: This state was recently ranked No. 1 for wind potential, according to new data from wind anemometers. Montana was recently ranked 50th in the country in production, behind Rhode Island. Now we're ranked 15th, and if things go right we'll get to No. 1.

NWC: In addition to developing new energy sources, what is the state doing to decrease demand in the form of energy efficiency?

Schweitzer: Over the course of the last 30 years, energy-efficiency standards in Montana have improved at 1.5 percent per year. If you look across the entire portfolio on a basis of 1.5 percent per year, we're getting more efficient. The problem is that while we've made things more efficient, we're making large things -- and more of them.

Over the past 30 years, homes have becomes substantially more efficient, but they've also increased in average size from 1,600 square feet to now 2,500 square feet. They're more efficient, but there's more demand, just like cars and everything else.

Look at travel. It's now a large segment of the economy, allowing people to commute in planes like buses. During the next five to 10 years, the only way we can reduce our addiction to foreign oil is through energy conservation. These are big projects. We've painted ourselves into a corner. This is what Congress has done. During the last oil shock in 1970s, Congress said, 'We've got to do something.' But what have they done? Think of a large gymnasium. Congress has just repainted the gym, and now they're standing in the corner saying, 'How do we get out of here?' It's 30 years later, and we still haven't created a policy that will decrease our dependence on foreign oil.

NWC: To what extent is climate change a factor in your energy strategy?

Schweitzer: It factors in a lot. The other problem we've got is China and India's middle class expanding at the fastest rate in the world. They're looking for electricity, and they are building conventional coal-fired electricity plants at unprecedented rates, because they have coal. In the next 30 years, China and India will put more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than the rest of world combined has in the last 150 years. That's why this clean-coal technology is important to get right in the United States, so that the technology can be exported.

Yes, climate change factors in. I have concern about C02 emissions. I don't think it ends the world, but it will change the world, and catastrophically in some areas, flooding some areas, causing storms, cyclones and hurricanes, warming gulf waters. These are just the predictions of scientists, and I'm taking them seriously.

NWC: Some have said deregulation in Montana has been a disaster. Is it time to revisit the state's deregulation in Montana, which passed in 1997, and vertically integrate electric utilities?

Schweitzer: It was the worst public policy decision in the history of the state. We had some of the country's cheapest electricity, because Montana Power owned generation, distribution and transmission. Regulated rates paid for dams and transmission lines. Over the years, deregulation allowed the utility to sell assets. Companies bought those assets, and now we're stuck with a company that is still quasi-regulated, beholden to Pennsylvania Power & Light. The State of Montana tried to buy back the dams, but Pennsylvania Power & Light spent millions in advertising, and with any similar initiative in the future they will do the same. It might make sense for the state to build new generation.

Brian J. Back
Big Plans in Big Sky Country
NW Current, April 24, 2006

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