Imagine Future for Montana energy


Op-Ed by Jeff Smith
From Missoulian

Back in the late ’70s, the wood products industry was king in western Montana. There was a lumber mill right downtown and mammoth plywood and pulp mills to the east and west. It smelled like money, as copper king William Andrews Clark once said about the air pollution in Butte.

I was right in the middle of it, using a big Husqvarna to saw trees for Champion International. The union loggers and the gypo crews I worked with all made good livings. We couldn’t cut enough trees.

None of us could have imagined the future we have now, with both 500-employee mills vanished and a Missoula Osprey ballpark standing where the tepee burners were. Wood products’ percentage of the current economy is minuscule in our post-industrial Missoula.

Yet our population, standard of living and numberless amenities have jumped off the charts. Why? In large part because we ignored the naysayers and embraced a new, diverse and more sustainable economy.

We needed change. As reporter Dick Manning documented in this newspaper, according to Champion International’s Montana property tax inventory, when the company pulled up stakes and moved to South America, less than 1 percent of its 850,000 acres in western Montana were well-stocked with tress larger than 9 inches on the stump. Only 7 percent was half-covered in “merchantable” timber. The rest was gone.

Right now, the naysayers are at it again, telling us we can’t move from coal and fracked gas and oil despite the fact our climate is going south, fracking poisons our water, and the only market for strip-mined coal is stupid, necessitating its long, dangerous haul to China.

And, of course, they deny or obfuscate the existential crisis gripping our planet. The Earth is hotter than it’s been in 600,000 years. It took centuries for greenhouse gases to accumulate and affect our climate last time, something we’ve managed in 100 years.

And that’s the crux.

The good news is we have the technologies, we have the money and, Lord knows, we have the skilled workforce to move to a new energy system powered by wind, water and solar. We do not yet have the policies to do so.

As the Billings Gazette reported recently (, a company is looking at deploying a wind farm near Colstrip that would power 300,000 homes. Wind is established as the least expensive energy around. As a former governor used to say, “Montana is the Saudi Arabia of wind.” Let’s do all we can to encourage this and other projects.

As long as it continues to snow and rain, it looks like we’re using our water resources at just about peak capacity.

And as for solar, there isn’t a solar installer around who’s not going “balls to the walls” right now to get residential solar to their customers. Community solar, too, is at a tipping point, with a “solar farm” in East Missoula and others in Lolo and up in the Flathead.

Montana has to make sure that our regulated utilities do the right things to further solar power. The Brookings Institute ( recently concluded that, when all the costs and benefits are evaluated, net-metering imposes no additional costs on non-solar customers, and, when the societal benefits of reducing carbon emissions are calculated, it is a no brainer to expand net-metering for residential and community solar.

Let’s imagine a future where Montana takes the lead, our regulated utilities get the right marching orders, the fossil fuels stay in the ground where they belong, and our state sets an example for the rest of the world.

Jeff Smith of Missoula is chair of 350 Missoula (, an affiliate of the international