52 climate activists arrested in Washington protest

Protesters in kayaks and canoes demonstrate near Anacortes, Wash., about 70 miles north of Seattle, to demand action on climate and an equitable transition away from fossil fuels such as oil and coal on May 15, 2016. The protest was part of a series of global actions calling on people to "break free" from dependence on fossil fuels. 

Scott Terrell/Skagit Valley Herald via The Associated Press

Montanans have a fundamental choice right now that will dictate how competitive our energy economy will be for decades to come. Do we take charge of our energy future, or do we bury our heads in the sand and wait to see what happens?

The thing is, our energy economy is in crisis. More than half of all electricity generated in Montana is exported to buyers in Oregon, Washington and California. The majority of that is coal-powered electricity. But demand for coal-powered electricity is drying up as West Coast states gradually phase more renewable energy into their portfolios.

Our first instinct might be to dig in and protect the status quo. But if we sit around complaining and resisting for too long, the market for our electricity is going to dry up before our eyes. Then we’ll have to figure out what Montana looks like without all that energy revenue and those energy jobs.

At the same time, Montana’s clean energy resources are abundant but underutilized. Our wind resource is second best in the nation, but we’re only 21st in terms of wind energy development. And while solar provides only a small fraction of Montana’s electricity today, the cost of solar power has dropped by half in the last five years, putting energy self-reliance within reach for Montana homeowners and businesses and kicking off a boom in the solar market around the country. Nationwide there are three times as many jobs in solar as there are in coal mining, and solar jobs are growing 10 times faster than the national average employment rate. That’s an opportunity Montana can’t afford to pass up.

Together, wind, solar, and energy efficiency have the potential to meet demand while creating jobs in Montana, diversifying our energy portfolio, and keeping Montana competitive in the energy industry for decades to come.

Coal isn’t going away tomorrow, but Montana has a narrow window of opportunity to prepare for the future. Montana’s major energy customers are telling us what type of energy they will buy 10 and 20 years from now. California plans to obtain 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Oregon will reach 50 percent by 2040, and its two largest utilities are required to phase out of coal-fired electricity by 2035. And in Washington state, lawmakers have created a fund to pay for the retirement costs of Colstrip Units 1 and 2.

As these states phase out coal powered electricity, they will be demanding more clean energy. Where will they buy it from? Well, that’s kind of up to us.

The biggest challenge to building a clean energy economy isn’t cost or logistics. It’s finding the political courage to recognize and engage in this new energy economy. Coal has been an important part of Montana’s economy for a long time. But we have to separate the big picture debate (old vs. new, coal vs. renewable) from the situation right here in Montana. We can’t sell our coal power. What can we sell instead?

For Montanans, clean energy is the solution.

That’s why the Montana Renewable Energy Association and Renewable Northwest launched a new campaign called Charge! last month. Charge! is about focusing the conversation on what’s really driving change in Montana’s energy economy and taking control of our energy future. The question isn’t whether things are changing, it’s how to respond. Fortunately, Montana’s next energy boom has been here all along, blowing through our fields and shining down on our rooftops.

We can take advantage of a new energy boom that creates thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in new revenue. Or we can settle for nothing. The choice is ours. Go to ChargeMT.org and tell us what you think.

Diana Maneta is executive director of the nonprofit Montana Renewable Energy Association.

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