Guest Column

Why has Montana’s Energy Fallen Behind?

The technology and innovation of EVs are a great match for the hardworking brilliance of Montana’s workforce

By Karin Kirk

State Sen. Barry Usher made some great points in his recent editorial, as he pointed out that Montana isn’t ready for electric vehicles. Sen. Usher is correct that Montana’s electricity system has fallen behind, leaving us unprepared for modern technologies.

Sen. Usher noted that Montana’s power grid is strained. I suppose one solution would be to never add any new electricity uses so we can preserve our precarious status quo. But other states are taking a different approach: they’re improving their grids to get ready for the new ways we Americans are using energy. Compared to other states, where does Montana rank for efforts to modernize our electrical grid? We’re in 50th place. 

Electricity use isn’t steady throughout the day – it generally peaks in the early evening when people come home from work, cook dinner, and heat or cool their homes. These peaks can be problematic during severe weather, as California and Texas have seen. But these states decided to take action. They built utility-scale batteries which soak up surplus (and cheap) energy during the day, then release it during the (expensive) peaks. Batteries save money so they’re quickly being adopted by utilities all over the country. How many utility-scale batteries does Montana have? None. 

Another solution is to shift some energy use to non-peak times. This is especially easy with EVs because they can be charged anytime. Most EV users charge their cars overnight – when electricity is abundant – then wake up with a full charge in the morning. Many states have programs to help shift electricity uses that aren’t time sensitive. Customers get cheaper, off-peak energy, and expensive new power plants needn’t be built to accommodate the peaks. Does NorthWestern Energy offer a peak-shifting program? No. 

The technology and innovation of EVs are a great match for the hardworking brilliance of Montana’s workforce. In the last two years, the electric vehicle supply chain has attracted over 100 new projects all across the country. These projects are bringing $91 billion in new investments and 57,000 new jobs in manufacturing, mining, and refining. How many of these exciting new endeavors are in Montana? None.

Sen. Usher’s column is lavish with scary language about impending crises, disastrous impacts, and threats to our way of life. As a state senator, he has the ability to write legislation to address these challenges. Has he? No.

I shouldn’t place too much blame on Sen. Usher, because stalling Montana’s energy progress isn’t the work of any one person. Rather, it’s taken consistent efforts from our governor’s administration, the majority of our state Legislature, the Public Service Commission, and NorthWestern Energy. 

While Sen. Usher worries that new tailpipe emissions rules will force you to buy an EV, that‘s not the case. These rules apply to automakers, not people. Car companies have to clean up their fleets, and they have several tools to get there, including hybrids, cleaner-burning engines, and yes, electric drivetrains. But the rules won’t force you to buy anything you don’t want, so breathe easy. (Literally, because these improvements will make our air cleaner and will save thousands of lives and billions of dollars each year.)

I bought my EV in Billings, not far from Sen. Usher’s district, and it’s by far the most fun car I’ve ever owned. The powerful acceleration is thrilling, and it excels on slippery winter roads. It charges while I sleep, and the electricity costs the equivalent of $1.14 per gallon. It uses less than half the energy of a comparable gasoline car. 

Best yet, for the first time since the horse and carriage went out of fashion, we have a choice for how we power our vehicles. Freedom is a beautiful thing.

We can be scared of change, or we can get ready for change. Montana doesn’t have to be a backseat driver – let’s climb into the driver’s seat and start catching up to the rest of the county. 

Karin Kirk, of Bozeman, is a geologist and science journalist specializing in energy and climate.