Gradual Changes in the Energy Landscape

By Beacon Staff

Although increasing the energy the Flathead Valley is able to generate on its own would be a widely acknowledged benefit, Northwest Montana is unlikely to drastically alter its power infrastructure any time soon – nor does it need to. That was the message a group of experts delivered to an audience at Flathead Valley Community College last week during a panel discussion on the eve of Earth Day.

“The bottom line is, in Montana quite honestly, we’ve got a lot of power,” Paul McKenzie, lands and resource manager for the F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co., said.

McKenzie, who assessed the viability of a biomass energy generation project at the timber company, was joined by Ken Sugden, general manager of Flathead Electric Cooperative, and former public service commissioner Ken Toole in providing a broad overview of the state of energy in the Flathead, and what conditions are necessary to move toward greater independence. The event was sponsored by The Policy Institute and Repowering the Flathead.

Toole, the president of The Policy Institute, remains a staunch supporter of developing renewable energy sources in Montana despite losing his PSC reelection bid last year. In his view, wind and solar power generation, as well as increasing conservation, could begin to insulate Montana from the price volatility and supply uncertainty of a reliance on fossil fuels.

“Generally, the environmental footprint is considered to be smaller on renewables,” Toole said. “But we should be clear, they have an environmental footprint.”

He was candid about the obstacles and drawbacks of developing renewable power sources. Renewable power tends to be intermittent in its supply: the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Transmission, or the means of getting power from its sources in rural areas to demand in urban areas in Montana or beyond, is also sorely lacking. The debate over the development of transmission lines in the Legislature resulted in the passage last week of a controversial eminent domain bill for power line developers.

“The transmission issue is a very big deal,” Toole said. “There’s a lot of talk and not a lot of action.”

But Toole believes several “game-changing” factors have the potential to make some renewable energy sources more viable, from the development of electric cars to better technology for storing power.

Increasing supplies of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” could also provide a kind of bridge for economies transitioning from coal-based power to renewables.

“There’s no question that the change in the natural gas prices is just rippling through everything,” Toole said.

While Flathead Electric is looking ahead to develop power generation sources beyond its methane facility at the county landfill – the recession-caused drop-off in growth in the valley has reduced the urgency with which the co-op needs to go in search of new power, Sugden said. FEC is ramping up its efficiency programs, but any new power supplies the co-op brings on are unlikely to cost less than the current cheap hydropower it buys from the Bonneville Power Administration.

“We’re in this dilemma,” Sugden said. “Any resources we bring in before 2018 displace 3.5-cent power that we can buy from Bonneville.”

Nevertheless, FEC has federal funding to explore potential geothermal energy sources near Hot Springs. It is looking into pre-purchasing power if Whitefish restarts a generator that has lain dormant since being struck by lightning, and is interested in a potential biomass facility in Libby, along with the potential to put generators on the dam that holds Libby’s water supply.

For McKenzie, the inability thus far to fully develop Stoltze’s long-proposed biomass power generation facility stems from Sugden’s explanation of FEC’s outlook: Because biomass generated power ends up costing more than what’s currently on the market, demand is sparse.

“The problem is we couldn’t find any purchaser for the power,” McKenzie said. “The bottom line is if it’s too darn expensive and nobody wants to buy it, it’s really kind of a no-go.”

After looking at several scenarios, Stoltze’s latest proposal is a smaller generator capable of producing 5-megawatts of power, which could run entirely on wood already coming into the sawmill. With some tax incentives, McKenzie believes the project could eventually pencil for FEC and some users in Washington, though building it still carries a hefty price tag, and the electricity won’t be cheap for this area.

“If you look at it from a competitive standpoint, it’s still a relatively expensive source of power,” McKenzie said. “And of course, trying to borrow $27 million right now is not the easiest thing in the world, especially if you’re a timber company.”

Though he had to cancel his appearance, Jim Coolidge of Clearwater Biologicals, which produces biofuels, was also scheduled to speak. Michelle Tafoya, of The Policy Institute, said the panel was the first of several planned this year to examine and debate energy in the Flathead Valley.

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