Goodbye coal: Missoula County partners on carbon-free 2035 plan for local electricity

(John Adams/Montana Free Press)

Striving to go carbon free, Missoula County is joining the city’s efforts to wean itself off electricity generated by fossil fuels by 2035, and it happily accepted a draft report on Tuesday setting forth ways to achieve that goal.

The city and county are expected to sign a joint resolution striving for 100 percent clean electricity in April. With the resolution in mind, the county has been added as a partner to “Missoula’s 100 Percent Clean Electricity Options Report.”

“The 100 percent clean energy joint resolution is being drafted now, and we’ve asked for that to be on the agenda for the joint (county) and City Council meeting on April 3,” said Diana Maneta. “That resolution will point toward and be based on this new options report.”

Maneta, who helped draft the report with Climate Smart Missoula, city staff and an energy consultant, said the document sets ways for Missoula to transition to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035.

Other municipalities in the U.S. and abroad have already taken steps to do so, and Missoula’s new report borrows from practices implemented elsewhere. “Simply put,” it says, “we have no choice but 100 percent carbon free energy here in Missoula and across the globe.”

“It doesn’t give us a prescription of what to do, but it gives us these options,” said Amy Cilimburg, executive director of Climate Smart Missoula. “That’s what we can bring forward as we talk about adopting the goal, which is the point of the resolution.”

According to the report, electricity accounts for 23 percent of Missoula’s total energy consumption. The remaining 77 percent is largely comprised of petroleum used for transportation and natural gas for home and commercial activities.

Reaching 100 percent clean electricity means producing enough clean power to cover Missoula’s electrical consumption. The cost of renewable electricity has fallen, the report notes, and clean energy could help kickstart a new local economy.

“It shows how solar in particular has dropped in cost, and it helps people frame this discussion we’re having in current economics,” Cilimburg said. “In the options we move forward, we’ve tightened them a little, and we’ve added more information on financing tools.”

The 19-page report also breaks down Missoula’s electricity portfolio. The Missoula Electric Cooperative provides 5 percent of Missoula’s electrical needs and is considered 95 percent carbon free. NorthWestern Energy provides the remaining 95 percent of Missoula’s electricity and is considered 60 percent renewable.

The remaining 40 percent is generated by fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas, the report states.

“Everything is changing, and the idea is to stay current,” Cilimburg said. “There’s some new reports coming out of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy around financing options. When those come up periodically, we’ll add them.”

Options already in the plan explore net metering, green tariffs and efficiency. Financing options, such as loans, performance contracts and property tax assessments, could also play a role, as could “municipalization,” or forming a locally owned utility to control the source of electrical generation.

Missoula will need to replace roughly 300,000 megawatt hours of electricity with clean energy sources to achieve its carbon-free goals. It could net 15 percent of that through energy efficiency and 45 percent through a solar farm. Wind could replace roughly 25 percent, according to the report.

Supporters of Missoula’s carbon-free efforts called the report a productive starting point.

“Contrary to some legislators over in Helena who think that generating electricity with fossil fuels is the thing to do going forward in perpetuity, I’m super happy with Missoula County’s collaborative efforts in addressing climate change,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.