Report: Montana falls behind in energy efficiency

Montana is falling behind when it comes to energy efficiency, according to a national energy organization. With energy sources in flux, that puts Montanans at a disadvantage.

In its ninth annual evaluation released last week, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy placed Montana in the bottom third of the nation in 2015 based upon the minimal policies and programs implemented by the state.

Although 20 states improved their scores this year, many are falling behind because they stopped increasing energy savings. Meanwhile, other states are ramping up efficiency programs, so they can direct state resources toward something other than unnecessary energy costs.

Montana's score jumped in 2012 after the recession prompted some changes and earned the state a most-improved rating. But this year, Montana fell back from last year, scoring just 13 points out of 50, putting it at 31 in the nation.

Montana's worst rating is in transportation, where it received no points out of a possible 10.

It’s a well-known fact that Montanans drive everywhere, spending hours traveling between towns. Now that the Legislature bumped the speed limit up to 80 mph on certain roads, that's added to the state's gas consumption.

Meanwhile, Montana still has no emissions testing and no incentive for people to drive high-efficiency vehicles.

Mass transportation is almost non-existent. Only one passenger train runs once a day along the High Line, and the 2013 demise of Rimrock Stages, Montana’s only busline, has caused bus fares between a limited number of Montana towns to double, leading to lower ridership.

Montana could easily gain a few points by bolstering mass transportation options or encouraging higher-mileage vehicles.

In the category of utilities, Montana received only 3.5 out of 20 points. Northwestern Energy controls the market with more than 90 percent of customers, so it pretty much sets the policies for the state.

The state does not require NorthWestern Energy to meet any standards for energy savings nor does it require transparency related to energy use.

Bipartisan efforts were made in the 2013 and the 2015 legislatures to increase the net-metering cap for the amount of solar energy NorthWestern Energy would have to credit to customers, but NWE lobbyists have worked to defeat it both times. They’ve also successfully defeated efforts to have community solar facilities, where solar panels power a series of buildings and homes.

Finally, the same net-metering barrier that holds solar power back also hampers the development of combined heat and power or CHP facilities. So while a number of Montana schools including Thompson Falls, Darby and Townsend are making use of biomass boilers, they’re producing only heat with no electricity.

“Billings Public Schools has demonstrated that there are huge opportunities for energy and cost savings with energy efficiency technologies and energy conservation behaviors,” said Ed Gulick, Billings architect and Chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council’s Clean Energy Task Force.

Also called cogeneration, CHP takes the heat produced during power generation and uses it to make more power. As a result, its efficiency is about 80 percent as opposed to 45 percent with conventional power production.

That’s why the Obama Administration’s recently released Clean Power Plan offers credit for both energy and heat from CHP facilities to offset coal-plant emissions.

If something could be done about net-metering, the state should take advantage of the credits by investing in CHP and creating energy districts like those that already exist in 700 U.S. cities, according an International District Energy Association white paper.

Montana currently offers technical assistance for CHP facilities but no incentive so no CHP facilities were built in 2014.

On the positive side, Montana is doing better than Wyoming and the Dakotas, which came in dead last, not where cold-weather states should be. They would benefit from being more like Washington state because the three West Coast states all scored in the top 10 for energy efficiency.

The ACEEE gave Montana points for setting the example by setting energy requirements for public buildings and vehicles, encouraging energy savings through energy performance contracts, and providing public incentives for energy-efficient investments.

Most recently, the 2015 Legislature passed high-performance building standards for all new state buildings and strengthened the application of energy performance contracts for school and local governments.

Also, the state now requires that all residential and commercial buildings comply with the 2012 International Energy Conservation building code. This has caused heartburn for log-home builders this year, because timber doesn’t insulate well enough to qualify without the addition of something like drywall.

The ACEEE was created in 1980 by leading energy researchers to evaluate national trends in energy efficiency and to educate businesses and governments on ways to improve energy use to make best use of America’s resources. The State Scorecard ranking is issued annually with the support of the US Department of Energy.