No hoax here: Missoula County looks to write climate action plan with new position

Missoula County hired an energy conservation coordinator and looks to write a climate action plan. While it has made energy efficient upgrades to the Missoula County Courthouse and local detention center, commissioners are looking at other ways to address climate change at the local level. (Missoula Current/Martin Kidston)

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions across a landscape as large as the state of Rhode Island has its challenges, but Missoula County commissioners have shrugged off climate change deniers and are working to address one of the planet’s most pressing issues.

The county this month hired an energy conservation and sustainability coordinator and, along the way, received its designation as Montana’s first SolSmart county.

The recognition acknowledges local governments that make it easier and more affordable to go solar. In other words, Missoula County is “open for solar business.”

“At its core, SolSmart is about reducing barriers to solar energy development for homeowners and businesses,” said Eliot Thompson, the county’s Energy Corps member. “Achieving a bronze SolSmart designation confirms Missoula County’s commitment to solar energy development and energy independence.”

Commissioners on Thursday said the county has in recent years taken strides to reduce its carbon footprint. Recent renovations at the Missoula County Courthouse looked toward energy savings, and lightbulbs at the detention center were replaced with efficiency lighting.

While commissioners don’t plan to ask sheriff’s deputies to patrol in Toyota Priuses, they are looking for new ways to save money and cut back on energy consumption. A new baseline study will give it a starting point as it looks to curb emissions down the road.

“We really don’t have a good sense of how we’re doing right now, but we do have a baseline,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “We’re looking internally for how we can reduce our emissions, and also externally to partner with anyone else to move the community in a more sustainable direction.”

Some of those community partners are already in place, including Climate Smart Missoula. The organization completed a city-wide emissions inventory in April, which found that residents in the metro area emitted more than 913,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2014, or roughly 10.8 metric tons per person.

The city of Missoula also completed a baseline inventory in 2008 as part of its Energy Conservation and Climate Action Plan. The first comparable look at the city’s progress found an 11 percent reduction in emissions as of last year, moving the city closer to achieving its goal of carbon neutrality.

But in a large Western county spread across varying landscapes with different community needs, commissioners don’t expect to reach carbon neutrality. They do, however, believe steps can be taken to address the larger issue, even if some national leaders continue to pan climate change as a hoax.

“Since climate change does exist, we can do what we can to mitigate it,” said Rowley. “We’re seeing the effects of it currently, and so I think a lot of it is being resilient to the changes that have occurred and how we can adapt our behaviors and communities to the changes that have happened already.”

The county’s SolSmart designation recognizes its efforts to simplify the installation of solar energy. And with Diana Maneta hired as the county’s new energy conservation coordinator and the baseline study now complete, commissioners are expected to move toward writing and adopting a climate action plan.

“That’s one of the many charges to the person we brought on board,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said of Maneta. “That’s the natural extension beyond the inventory work already completed under our last Energy Corps member.”