Conference Features Flathead’s ‘Energy Pioneers’

By Beacon Staff

Business people at last week’s new energy conference were proof that even in Montana – home to scores of extended cab pick-up trucks and John Deere tractors – there’s room for alternative energy.

In recognition of Earth Day, Citizens for a Better Flathead sponsored a full-day conference titled, “Repowering the Flathead for a New Energy Economy.”

The event’s luncheon panel featured alternative energy projects throughout the valley, or as Citizen’s director Mayre Flowers put it: “a whirlwind tour with some of the energy pioneers here in the valley.”

At Flathead Electric Cooperative, Ross Holter is responsible for developing and marketing the company’s energy efficiency and small-scale renewable energy programs.

Over the last 20-plus years, Holter said the company has offered everything from interest-free loans to weatherize homes in the early 1980s to rebates for high efficiency water heaters and Energy Star appliances.

The combined energy savings, Holter said, of these programs from 1980 through 2008 was more than 42.5 million kilowatt hours – enough energy to power both Whitefish and Columbia Falls for a year.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for people to be more efficient,” he said. “And that’s not going without. It just means doing the same for less.”

Individuals can see big decreases in their energy use – and bills – by making a few changes, Holter said, especially with better insulation or heating and cooling systems.

Montanans are already sitting at the center of the camelina industry, said Duane Johnson, who works for Great Plains – The Camelina Company, a renewable fuels energy company.

“Everybody is watching Montana to see what it’s going to do here,” he said.

Camelina is an oilseed crop that can be used to make biodiesel, an environmentally friendly alternative to diesel fuel.

While gas and diesel require more energy to make than they ultimately produce, Johnson said biodiesel returns more than three times its production energy. Ethanol also has a positive yield.

There are challenges for the alternative fuel, however, including crop sensitive production prices, misconceptions and, of course, competition with traditional fuels.

“One of the big myths is that it will drastically impact food supply,” Johnson said, noting that less than 5 percent of the cost of food is from the crop itself, while the rest comes from energy, packing and shipping costs.

In an environment where relying solely on lumber for income has become increasingly hard, F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company is hoping alternative energy could provide another viable revenue stream.

Chuck Roady, vice president and general manager, said the company is hoping to build a cogeneration plant, a green heat and electricity generator. The plant would run on byproducts created at the sawmill and woody biomass – a renewable energy source made up of materials like stumps, needles and twigs that are left behind when an area is logged.

It would likely produce 12 megawatts of power year-round, with the capacity to add another six megawatts of power for six months of the year, Roady said.

First, however, the company will have to overcome the project’s hefty price tag, estimated at about $50 million, and find a buyer for power. “It would be a huge plus for Stoltze,” Roady said.

Jeff Arcel’s company Mother’s Power specializes in solar, wind and hydro energy systems – areas he said are emerging as the country’s “new energy economy.”

Skeptics should look no further than Texas for proof, he said. Historically, the top oil producing state, it’s now also No. 1 in wind-generated power. In Montana, wind projects like the one near Shelby are bringing significant jobs and money to the state.

There are also increasing options for individuals who want to take their home “off the grid,” Arcel said. The cost of these renewable energy systems has decreased by as much as 90 percent in recent years, bringing options for residential that cost about $5,000 to $10,000.

When a group of individuals purchased the Alameda, a resort business in Hot Springs, they quickly realized they needed to stem their rising energy costs to stay in business. The solution: using the hot springs’ geothermal heat combined with solar energy to produce algae.

“We had an irrigation ditch full of algae that we couldn’t get rid of, so we found a way to use it,” Paul Stelter, one of the business’ owners, said.

In addition to powering the resort, the process also produces extremely rich fertilizer and can be used to grow culinary and medicinal foods.

The panel finished off with Amy Shatzkin, a representative from ICLEI, Local Governments for Sustainability.

More than 50 communities in the Northwest, including a handful in Montana like Bozeman, Missoula and Helena, are working with the non-profit organization to develop climate and energy plans and, more broadly, sustainable planning. By increasing energy efficiency, some cities have saved millions, Shatzking said.

“Climate problems are local in origin,” she said. “But the exciting thing about that is the solutions are also local in origin.”

For those who missed the conference but are interested in the information, Flowers said Citizens for a Better Flathead would have video copies of the event available at the public library and their office.

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