ROBERTS — A year ago, Roberts School Superintendent Jeff Bermes was grasping for straws.
The district had watched its power bill jump 50 to 60 percent. The spike came on the heels of a cold December that was exacerbated when Beartooth Electric Cooperative raised rates, increased its base charge and added a surcharge to cover costs associated with the proposed Highwood Generating Station.
Faced with the long-term prospect of higher electric bills, Bermes wondered where the district could shave its energy use.
“What do you cut and still provide the opportunities for the kids?” he asked.
Twelve months later, Bermes reports that the district’s power bills dropped to near pre-rate-hike levels and seem to be holding steady. But that’s after the school invested $165,000 in energy-efficient improvements.
Changes in lighting alone came to $40,000, he said.
More than half of the money came in grants, including one from Beartooth Electric Cooperative, and roughly $64,000 in federal stimulus funds. For the most part, the changes were modest fixes made on a fairly large scale: new light fixtures and bulbs throughout the building, programmable thermostats, timers for lights, a new furnace, some new windows and better insulation in some exterior walls.
“We’ve made all the improvements for efficiency,” he said. “But I can’t really say if we’ve gained or lost.”
Because weather conditions vary from one year to the next, it’s difficult to measure the impact of the upgrades. But assuming current charges are similar to what they were leading up to last January, it’s likely the district’s facility is 20-30 percent more efficient.
“If not for the grants, we’d be seeing some pretty high bills,” Bermes said. “We’re much more efficient today than we were last year at this time.”
Across the highway, Ron and Roxie Melton, owners of the Y-Stop convenience store are still haunted by the power surcharge that hit them last January.
“We’re still trying to catch up,” Roxie said. “We’re behind.”
The Y-Stop’s bill hit $1,233 last January — roughly twice what it had been. By February, Beartooth Cooperative had slashed the surcharge in half and by November had discontinued it entirely. Since then, Roxie said, their monthly bill has dropped back to the $600 to $700 range, which she’s able to cover. But, she still struggles to make back payments on last spring’s high bills.
In the meantime, the couple has made some energy-saving changes.
The Meltons came to Montana from Georgia, where they’d spent their careers working for Georgia Power. That’s why, even long before Beartooth’s rates shot up, they’d made the switch to high-efficiency light bulbs.
“For us, that was the norm,” she said.
The rate hike, however, prompted them to reevaluate their business. When their main freezer went out, they didn’t replace it. Instead, they dropped a few items from their inventory and consolidated into a smaller one. Their vendors, too, helped them replace older models, like their ice cream bunker, with more efficient ones.
“It’s been very difficult,” Roxie said. “The transition year has been an expensive one.”
The situation also prompted Roxie, an outspoken critic of Beartooth’s support for the proposed Highwood Generating Station, to consider running for a position on Beartooth’s board of directors. Then she discovered that their property was on the wrong side of the road, just yards from the boundary of the district that had a seat up for election.
“I couldn’t run then,” she said. “But I can next time.”
‘Little weird lights’
Neighbor Judy Strobbe got by this past year by keeping better track of her energy usage. Strobbe lives on her Social Security check, so she was hard-pressed to cover the extra $20 charged to her last January. But she did what she could.
“I managed to get those little weird lights,” she said, referring to fluorescent bulbs. “And basically, when I’m not using something, it’s unplugged.”
She also makes sure to turn off the lights when they’re not in use.
Strobbe heats with natural gas and has relied on help through the LIEAP (low-income energy assistance program) but she hasn’t sought assistance for her electricity bill.
“So far — knock on wood — I’ve managed to keep my lights on,” she said.
Quitting the grid
In the hills to the east of Columbus, Dot and Rick Gallager adjusted to the rate increase by quitting the grid and leaving the co-op. Last summer, they spent tens of thousands of dollars installing 36 solar voltaic panels and three tons of batteries. As backup, they incorporated a natural gas generator — NorthWestern Energy supplies natural gas to the area, but not electricity — that would produce electricity during extended cloudy periods.
During the short, cold days of December, the generator was kicking on for an hour or so every day. As the days lengthened and the sun has come out, it has not been so frequent.
“It’s been three days now since it’s kicked on,” Dot said. “It (gas-generated electricity) is definitely a much smaller part of our energy mix than our overall electricity usage in the past.”
Going off the grid was an expensive process, but Rick said they are glad not to be dealing with the politics of the co-op. The Gallagers, too, oppose Beartooth’s involvement in the Highwood plant.
The Gallagers realize the drastic step they took is not for everyone, but there are less expensive ways to conserve, they point out.
“Obviously, the best thing you can do is go for the low-hanging fruit first — insulation, blocking holes,” Dot said. “It happened we have a very energy-efficient house. To improve our usage, we had to do something extreme.”
Although the Gallagers welcome any tax credits they might get for investing in renewable energy, they didn’t install their system with the prospect of breaking even.
“I’ve always had a dream of being more self-sufficient,” Dot said. “And it particularly makes sense in this climate. We know what our energy will cost going forward.”