Panel Discusses Importance and Challenges of Energy Efficiency

By Beacon Staff

At an energy conference in Kalispell last week, four panelists from the Flathead Valley discussed the importance and challenges of implementing energy-efficiency programs and upgrades, particularly among low- and fixed-income residents.

The NW Energy Coalition, a clean energy policy advocacy association, held its semiannual conference on May 18 at the Red Lion Hotel. The “NW Clean and Affordable Energy Conference” featured three panels: clean and affordable energy in the Flathead Valley, renewable energy standards in the Northwest and the future of coal mining and export in the West. Bill Drummond of the Bonneville Power Administration was the keynote speaker.

The panel on clean and affordable energy in the Flathead featured David Bopp, energy services representative at Flathead Electric Cooperative; Ralph Goode, general manager at Mission Valley Power; Mayre Flowers, executive director of Citizens for a Better Flathead; and Diane Yarus, co-owner of Kalispell’s AirWorks Heating and Cooling Solutions.

The four panelists agreed on the conservation and cost benefits of making homes and businesses more energy efficient. But while making efficiency upgrades ultimately saves money by using less energy, it often requires costs upfront, which deters many residents, the panelists said.

Yarus, whose heating and cooling company works frequently with low- and fixed-income residents, said many people don’t have access to enough capital to make the improvements that will prove beneficial in the long run.

“We see the homes that need the most efficiency are the ones that can’t afford it,” Yarus said. “We see a lot of low-income people that are in unsustainable housing.”

Both Bopp and Goode said their utilities place great importance on renewable energy and energy efficiency, offering a number of efficiency programs and rebates. Goode said more people are becoming aware of the advantages of energy efficiency and the programs available.

“We have customers coming daily asking how they can reduce their energy use,” Goode said, adding that Mission Valley Power has “a gamut of energy-efficiency programs.”

Bopp echoed Yarus and Goode in describing the increased awareness of energy efficiency but also the difficulties some residents have in affording upgrades. He said he helps Flathead Electric members manage and reduce their energy usage and works to make sure they know about the rebate programs available to them.

Bopp also described the cooperative’s renewable energy projects, including a power-purchase agreement for a biomass plant at F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. and a methane-to-energy plant at the Flathead County Landfill. He said renewable energy and energy efficiency are “an important aspect of our mission statement.”

Flowers of Citizens for a Better Flathead discussed a community energy planning report published in October 2011 that resulted from three years of research, analysis and community involvement. The report, called “Re-Powering the Flathead for a New Energy Economy,” can be accessed at the organization’s website at www.flatheadcitizens.org.

According to the website, the report’s primary goal is to “provide information to decision makers in the Flathead Valley about current and future opportunities in energy use, and to best position these decision makers to harness those opportunities as they arise.”

The report found that reducing energy costs for residents and businesses through conservation and efficiency, and investing in local energy, could create “substantial benefits for the local economy,” among other findings.

The conference also included a May 19 private tour of Algae AquaCulture Technology’s “Green Power House,” which turns agricultural and industrial waste products into electricity and organic compost. The facility is located at Stoltze Land and Lumber Co.

The NW Energy Coalition, founded in 1981, is based in Seattle and “is an alliance of more than 115 environmental, civic and human service organizations, progressive utilities, and businesses” in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.

Toward the end of the Flathead panel, NW Energy Coalition’s executive director, Sara Patton, commended the local efforts to address energy issues.

“I think it’s an inspiration to the whole region,” she said.

For more information on the NW Energy Coalition, visit www.nwenergy.org.