A three-day conference that seeks to incubate ideas for clean energy development kicked off in Helena Tuesday with a call for Montanans to work together to make the state more energy efficient.
The Harvesting Clean Energy Conference is hosted by the National Center for Appropriate Technology, a Butte-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable energy and agriculture through education and outreach.
The regional conference, in its 13th year, rotates annually between sites around the Northwest. It brings together farmers, utilities, public employees, entrepreneurs and others to develop new clean energy opportunities, according to NCAT Executive Director Kathleen Hadley.
This year the conference also includes a focus on strategies to reduce the effects of climate change.
“That will be a different twist to this,” Hadley said.
She said the conference seeks to identify ways to mitigate climate change while also promoting economic development.
“The cheapest energy we have is efficient energy,” Hadley said. “We just have to figure out how to work together.”
That was the theme of remarks delivered at an opening plenary by John Padalino, Rural Utilities Service administrator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Padalino said investing in energy efficiency will bring economic payoffs to the rural areas suffering from high poverty and declining populations.
More than a quarter of children in rural counties are growing up poor, he said, “and all research indicates they will stay poor.”
But building a more efficient electrical grid, starting with individual homes, will benefit residents, communities and utility companies, he said. And those entities must partner to create smarter systems based on sustainable and energy-efficient practices.
In particular, groups must work together to finance conservation and renewable projects, which Padalino pointed to as perhaps the toughest barrier to clean energy upgrades.
“You have to take that knowledge back to your communities. Talk to your rural co-ops,” Padalino said to conference attendees, adding that such conversations are often difficult.
He said that when the first rural electricity co-ops were started in the early days of the Tennessee Valley Authority, some residents saw electricity as “the devil’s business.” Renewables today are often seen in a similar light, Padalino said.
“Today we can build a new energy future for the next 75 years,” he said.
Department of Environmental Quality Director Tracy Stone-Manning also spoke, outlining the agency’s work to promote clean energy and calling it a key piece to the future of the state’s environment.
Stone-Manning said her department is lucky to spend much of its time maintaining the state’s natural environment, rather than trying to clean up one that’s already polluted.
She pointed to videos of sunrises depicted on electronic billboards in Beijing, where air pollution can prevent a direct view.
“That’s working from behind,” she said.
In Montana, conserving energy and investing in renewable sources is important to preserving the environment, she said.
“Renewable energy is clean, job-creating energy that will never require a Superfund clean-up or an enforcement order,” she said.
Agency efforts include the completion of a heat and power facility outside Columbia Falls that utilizes wood waste and revolving loan program that has loaned more than $5 million for small-scale alternative energy projects, Stone-Manning said.
She added that Montanans around the state are already adopting renewable energy technologies and are getting some help from recent investments in higher education programs.
“Farmers are running their tractors on the fuels from the crops they raise. Dairies are turning manure into money,” she said. “Innovation is happening all around us.”
“We could have a planet that runs on energy that creates no waste,” Stone-Manning said. “The concept is simple and elegant, and still out of our reach. But reach it we must.”
The conference continues today and Thursday with all-day seminars. Gov. Steve Bullock is scheduled to give remarks this afternoon.