Quitting Coal, Montana a Battle-Hardened Resource State.

By: Walker Lamb

Montana currently produces roughly enough electricity to go completely renewable, yet half the energy produced in the state comes from coal. Why do we continue to produce coal energy if we have enough hydro and wind power to run entirely off renewable sources? The answer, ‘’Exportation’’.

Roughly half of the energy produced in Montana is exported to other states. This explains why Montana doesn’t run 100% on renewable resources. Currently 47% of the energy produced in Montana comes from Hydraulic and Wind power, a significant amount, and yet still less than the 49 percent of Montana’s power that is produced from coal.

So yes Montana could quit coal tomorrow and our energy grid would be able to handle it but, could the states we export to handle the loss? Energy hungry states like Idaho and California need the power we export, and would need a substitute for the sudden loss of imported power. Montana would also need to consider the consequences from the loss of local jobs and livelihoods of families that depend on the income from the coal sector.

While these losses are formidable, they are going to be lost regardless due to increasing automation, growing demand for renewable resources, and the fact that coal is a nonrenewable resource with a limit. The ability to produce electricity from coal will eventually run out but that’s Ok. It is a good thing to embrace the new technologies and the jobs that come with them.

While we may have large coal reserves we also have substantial renewable energy reserves as well. Montana has the potential to recoup those job losses and and even surpass them while also filling the energy gap left by coal. Renewable energy is ripe with jobs from installation to maintenance and Montana has the geographic advantage to do it.

With its rolling hills and flat plains in the eastern part of the state, Montana has some of the largest wind energy potential in the nation. By the start of 2018 the total number of turbines in the state had nearly reached 500, with more projects in various stages of planning and construction.

Critics argue that wind energy is not as consistent as coal-fired power plants.  However, a solution for that issue is already advancing; a closed loop hydro storage facility is under construction a hundred miles outside of Billings. Wind has great potential in Montana but it is only part of the renewable energy equation, albeit a large part, however, Hydro, Geothermal Biomass, and Solar are all good resources to fill the coal void.

Hydro-power

Hydro-power is currently the largest green energy producer in the state and has the potential to grow. Western Montana is mountainous with many fast flowing high volume rivers. Harnessing this energy with new age hydrologic dams that include fish jumps and silt flushing systems could help fill the coal void.

Swan Peak in the Swan Valley

Geothermal and Biomass

 The state also has 50 geothermal areas, with about a third of those having the potential for electricity generation. Although it is not carbon negative, biomass power is another potential powerhouse for Montana.  Sustainable logging provides another source of exportable energy. This also helps fight wildfires and keeps our summer air clear from smoke, a serious issue that all Montanans have experienced.

Solar

 You have probably noticed I have not mentioned Solar yet as a potential green energy replacement.  That is because I have been primarily geared toward utility-scale energy production. Solar does have potential for growth in this sector.  2017 saw the construction of the first utility-scale solar project in Montana with others in construction. With this, most of the growth in solar has been residential and small scale commercial building solar installations.

 Montana is becoming a green energy power house, that future is already under construction, the question remains of how fast that transition will take.

Sources:

Montana state profile and energy estimates; December 2018 update,    https://www.eia.gov/state/analysis.php?sid=MT

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