Voices of 100%: A Renewable City Coalition Grows in Western Montana — Episode 137 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 25 Aug 2021 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell talks with Helena Sustainability Coordinator Patrick Judge and Citizens Conservation Commission Member Mark Juedeman. Judge and Juedeman supported Helena as the city committed to 100% renewable energy. In making its commitment, Helena has joined Missoula and Bozeman, building a commanding coalition in western Montana.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Mark Juedeman: It’s been really gratifying working with my counterparts over in Missoula City and county and Bozeman. And like I said, that first meeting was actually convened in Big Sky. They are another community that was very interested in these topics and have similar goals. And so, you know, those communities already represent about a quarter of Northwestern’s Montana customer base, and those communities are also some of the fastest growing in the state. And so that’s only going to continue to increase and, you know, we think that’s a powerful kind of strong collective voice that the utility has to pay attention to.
John Farrell: If it’s hard for one city to achieve a 100% renewable electricity commitment, can they improve the odds by combining forces? Helena, Montana was the third city in the state to make it 100% renewable energy pledge when it passed in February, 2020, and along with Bozeman and Missoula, the three communities represent nearly one quarter of the electric utility’s customers in the state. I spoke with Helena City Sustainability Coordinator Patrick Judge and Citizens Conservation Commission member Mark Juedeman in April, 2021 about the collective push for cleaner electricity in Montana. I’m John Farrell, Director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And this is a Voices of 100% episode of Local Energy Rules, a bi-weekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy.

 

Mark and Patrick, welcome to Local Energy Rules.

Mark Juedeman: Thank you, John.
Patrick Judge: It’s great to be here.
John Farrell: So I like to start off to give people a flavor for why the folks that are working on these issues have some sense of personal investment in it. Cause I usually find that it’s not just that there is some sort of official policy, but the folks who’ve been involved in helping to establish and to work on these goals have really come to it from other interests and passions in their life. So I guess to start with you, Patrick, I’m just curious, like what got you into this kind of work around sustainability? What motivated you? And kind of sustained you as you’ve worked on this a hundred percent renewable energy commitment?
Patrick Judge: Sure. So I was fortunate to be born and raised in this community and have deep family roots here and growing up, I really developed an intense love for the natural amenities of this area and a desire to do what I could to help protect that. And then I guess my kind of professional interests have been in the physical sciences and, uh, also in sustainability and, and one area where those two interests seem to really overlap was with energy and with climate issues. So clearly a global warming and global climate change, the most pressing issue facing us today on the environmental front and, and beyond that with serious threats to Montana’s quality of life, with the wildfires and public health implications of that, and drought threatening our largest industries of agriculture and tourism. And so I was really proud that from the beginning, the city of Helena framed its sustainability efforts in this context, and I was happy to have the opportunity to serve on the climate change task force back in 2008 and 2009, which produced a climate action plan for the city.
John Farrell: And Mark, how about you? What brings you to this kind of conversation?
Mark Juedeman: Well, I grew up on a ranch north of Helena. Uh, I got a degree in geology and then moved to Texas and Louisiana for work. While volunteering at a building material use nonprofits in New Orleans, I spearheaded the installation of the solar rate on the warehouse. At the time in 2004, that was the largest array in Louisiana at little over six kilowatts. So we’ve come a long way since then. I’ve also initiated getting a 10 kilowatt wind turbine installed at our family ranch in Montana. And I think that was around 2000, started in 2005. Then Katrina hit while we were in New Orleans, we were flooded, displaced from New Orleans and climate change impacts became very, very real for us. It took a few years more, but we finally moved back to Montana where we’ve installed solar on our home, complimentary solar to the wind at our ranch. And we’re focused on working in our community to address with climate mitigation and resilience through such avenues as being a member of the city of Helena City Conservation Board. And could I also say something about how fortunate Helena is to have Patrick as our sustainability coordinator, with his scientific literacy, the skill of data and analysis and his many years of experience in the energy policy?
Patrick Judge: I feel the same toward you, Mark.
John Farrell: We’ll, uh, we’ll make sure that those recordings are available. If you ever need to, uh, ask for a promotion or a raise Patrick, it seems like that’s a good reference there. Well, thanks so much. It’s, I think it’s great to hear kind of the path that different people have traveled in getting to this work. To dive in then into the specific commitment that Helena has made about a hundred percent renewable energy, I was hoping Patrick, that you could explain a little bit about the details? Because we now have well over a hundred, almost 150 cities that have made similar commitments, but a lot of them differ in terms of the scope, some focused on electricity, some just on like the municipal operations and as well as that, the timeline, you know, 2030, 2040, 2050, could you just explain what is Helena committed to? And, and by what date?
Patrick Judge: I guess, going back to that climate action plan from 2009 that had 44 recommendations and it did have a goal for energy reduction and carbon reduction in city government, municipal operations. And what was interesting at that time is we did the analysis for 2001 and 2007 as our test years. And we saw that at municipal government level, we had already reduced energy and carbon emissions by 20%. And so created another goal of 20% by 2020. And it looks like we’ll meet that goal on the carbon emission side anyway. And so, you know, the city commission kind of revitalized these efforts in 2017 by creating the citizen conservation board and then shortly thereafter by creating my position. So that was in November of 2019 and shortly thereafter, February of 2020, the city commission adopted its a hundred percent clean electricity goal, which is community-wide. So it’s broadening the scope from, you know, up until that point had really been focused on getting our own internal house in order. So this is community-wide, it’s electricity only a hundred percent by 2030 with an interim goal of 80% by 2025. And this goal is very much in sync with the communities of Missoula city and county and Bozeman have taken similar positions on that. So I think that summarizes it.
John Farrell: Yeah, that’s great. One of the things I think is interesting. So we did an interview with Missoula for a previous episode and I, you know, both cities are served by Northwestern Energy, that same investor owned utility. And one of the things I thought was really interesting was that about 60% of their electricity already comes from hydro, wind, or solar. So compared to a lot of other cities across the country where maybe 25 to 30% of the best is coming from renewables, you have a pretty good head start. Does that make it feel easier? You know, now you still only have nine years, you set a pretty aggressive timeline, which is terrific. Does it feel easier? Do you think, because you’ve got that head start, or does it still feel like, wow, we still got a ways to go?
Patrick Judge: I would say perhaps easier, but, but certainly not easy. Um, so we are truly fortunate to have such vast renewable energy potential in Montana and a strong base of carbon-free generation already in the mix with the legacy hydro system from Montana power company, days to substantial quantities of new wind and a sliver of solar in there as well. But have to be honest, it’s tough sledding here in Montana. It kind of took an about face with some of our state level officials, legislature just adjourned yesterday and, kind of rolling back some of the key policies that we had on the books, the renewable portfolio standard repealed, tax credits for conservation and renewable energy. They also created a new $250 extra registration fee for electric vehicles, numerous attacks on rooftop, solar net metering policy. Those did not actually make it to the finish line, but they certainly could next session and even preemption bills trying to limit the scope of what local governments can do in this area explicitly forbidding carbon taxes or anything resembling that, for example, at the local level. So it’s definitely still challenging. Um, but there is a, a ton enthusiasm and progress going forward at that local level still.
Mark Juedeman: Yeah. I really think that where the action is is that at our local communities, we face tremendous headwinds from the legislature and the executive branch. And so that’s kind of our motivation for doing everything we can at our city level.
John Farrell: Speaking of trying to do that work at the city level, as you mentioned, there’s tremendous renewable energy resources in Montana. I remember in our recent report, we did an update to our energy self-reliance state’s report and I’m, I’m pretty sure that it was in the thousands of percent, more renewable energy potential in the state than compared to its electricity consumption. And we mentioned before, like Missoula, Helena is mostly served by utility company Northwestern Energy it doesn’t own. What are some of the challenges that you think you can overcome in terms of Northwestern? So, you know, you just said, for example, the state rolled back policies that would have compelled Northwestern to get more clean energy. On the other hand, what we’ve seen across the country is that utilities that are running fossil fuel power plants are often doing so when they are more costly than clean energy options. Have you had conversations with Northwestern? Are they, as the, as more cities are in their service territory are saying they want to do stuff with renewable energy. Are they coming around and interested in working with you?
Patrick Judge: Yeah, that’s, that’s an interesting question. Northwestern energy is a large and complex organization. We definitely work with them when we can try to hold them accountable. Otherwise, had really good success working with some of their teams. And I would say they are doing some things right, for sure, but definite challenges working kind of on the policy front with our regulatory affairs. And, you know, they have a fleet of resources that includes thermal plants that they’re very dedicated to, 220 megawatts of coal power at Colstrip that they hope to run through 2042. They have a natural gas plant at Dave gate station near Anaconda. They have other contracts with gas and waste coal and whatnot, and just recently proposed a new gas plant in Laurel, another 175 megawatts. So that makes it difficult. But, uh, like I said, we have had many conversations with the utility and, you know, we’re optimistic that we could make some progress.

In December of 2019, they actually convened a group of stakeholders, including these, these cities with these goals and started to have conversations about, could we perhaps replicate the Utah model? They passed the community renewable energy act in 2019. And that was in a very conservative state, but the conservative governors as well, and there’s interest in replicating that here, ultimately the utility stepped back from that didn’t think it was politically feasible. They’re probably right about that. And that has the beauty of being a default situation where the communities, customers are part of, kind of sees a hundred percent green electricity products and then have the option to opt out. So instead we’re kind of falling back on more of a green tariff model that we’ve been negotiating with utility. So that’s more of the opt-in model, but the cities have their municipal loads that could be good anchor tenants for that kind of approach. Other large organizations, businesses, Walmart, the universities, and hopefully this product would be available to businesses of all sizes and residential customers that they could opt in as well. So that’s kind of the major area of focus that we’ve been working on lately. We have an inter local agreement between the city of Missoula county and Missoula and the city of Bozeman to, we hired a consultant to help us design this proposal that does not need new legislation, is entirely voluntary. So we think it’s more politically palatable and doable in Montana.

Mark Juedeman: I’d also say that the, the city itself is moving towards renewables with real money, funding. Uh, along with the universal service, been a big grants that we’ve been able to get two 50 kilowatt net metered solar projects – and 50 kilowatt because that’s the cap on their meter projects here in Montana. There been a lot of investments by the city in energy conservation and efficiency as well. So that we’ve been on a downward trend of energy use and emissions since 2001. 20% reduction in energy consumption from 2001 to 2007 and another 7% from 2007 to now. But the reality is that only 3% of our community usage is, is by the city of Helena. So that’s just a small part of the total amount. Helena has been very progressive on trying to get distributed solar. I support distributed solar. There’s a zero interest loan program. And the only one in the state, which is essentially a PACE program and that you pay back the loan on your property tax bill. It was launched in 2015, with 200,000 from a telecom settlement. Another $60,000 was added in 2021 and another $60,000 is in the budget for 2022. Again, I’ve got to say that the city commission, the mayor have been very supportive that this transition and the revolving fund continues to grow. 28 projects have been completed so far. And I think there’s potential for preparing more. Another local group, the sleeping giant citizens council is thinking about a Solarize program, piloting a solarize program this year. And I think that zero interest loan program will be a component of that.
John Farrell: Yeah. I have got like two directions I want to go with my questions at this point, but I want to say, I’m going to try to make a note that I don’t miss both of them because I want to ask you about this loan program, which is really intriguing, but also a little bit more about this discussion you were having with Northwestern Energy. I just did a podcast conversation with folks from Milwaukie, Oregon, which is a suburb of Portland and they have a hundred percent commitment and have been kind of in a similar situation where the utilities out there have a lot of hydro power already. And they are, they’re in a similar negotiation about a green tariff or a community choice model. And it sounds like they’re going to do some sort of opt out – I don’t know if they’re able to do it because there is different state legislation, or if the utility is somehow going to work with them on that. But it was really, it’s really intriguing to hear that that is popping up in different states as a potential model. I guess one thing I was curious about is if Northwestern Energy were to say, “we’d support this,” this community choice opt out model, where you would be able to on the behalf of the customers and Helena say, we’re going to do a hundred percent renewable, but you can, you can opt out of it. Do you think it could pass the legislature? If you had the utility on board saying, hey, we support this model. We think that it would work and you know, we’re interested in supplying the energy for it.
Patrick Judge: Yeah, that was definitely the hope. Uh, and, and that was the model that really the reason why it was able to get through the Utah state house with Rocky mountain Power as a partner to salt lake city and park city and summit county. So, and that’s why it was just really unfortunate that, that the utility not only said that maybe the time timing isn’t ripe right now, but they also stepped away from even trying to lay the groundwork for the 2023 session on that. So I, I don’t know, it’s, it’s tough to say if it could get through with their assistance, but I think it would have a legitimate shot. You know, Montanans also have the citizens initiative process. Uh, so that’s another potential route. And the communities have really been trying to brainstorm different approaches, whether it’s community choice aggregation or municipalization, but there are a lot of barriers in Montana law even to community net metering and things like that.
John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, I’ll ask how equity is being incorporated into Helena’s clean energy goals, further explore the partnership with Missoula and Bozeman, and ask what advice Patrick and Mark have for leaders in other cities. You’re listening to our Voices of 100% local energy rules podcast with Patrick judge, city sustainability coordinator with the city of Helena, Montana, and mark Juedeman, member of the city’s citizen conservation commission.

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John Farrell: We have our community power map at ILSR, and we track a lot of those different policies by state. And I think it’s so important to understand, as you said, how the state laws shape a lot of what cities can do, unfortunately, and it makes that kind of state level advocacy is such an important piece of how cities can reach these goals. It’s not just about what can they do with the power they have, but also asking for more flexibility and choice in the things that they can do. So I wanted to follow up on this other bit you talked about mark, the pace loan program for solar and how it would integrate with the Solarize. One of the things I was curious about was whether or not there are any particular provisions to focus on equity, sort of just broadly within the hundred percent renewable energy plan, but it seems like this is a really great possibility here with a program where the city’s involved in helping to make solar more affordable for folks. Are there any particular targets in that program? Are there other ways in which the city is trying to make sure that a hundred percent goal can be done in a way that is benefiting Native American populations or low income folks?
Mark Juedeman: Yeah, there isn’t a tent to try to market the 0% interest loan program in specific areas where the socioeconomic levels may benefit from that. That’s something still in the future. We need to figure that out. We may be able to do it kind of like by ward, perhaps to try to get some more equity and that. Equity is, you know, it’s a big issue, I think with distributed, renewable energy, you know, there’s some barriers there. One is that mostly it’s installed on, on folks’ homes and, and home ownership can really be a barrier to being able to do that. Helena, like many other cities in the West is kind of facing an affordability crisis as far as, as homes go. A lot of people want to move here, especially during the last year, and there’s a limited supply of homes. And so the prices have gone through the roof. Things aren’t nearly as crazy as they are in other places like Missoula yet, but, you know, we could see that happening. So, so that’s, that’s one barrier, I guess the other thing is that rents are also going up. And so that’s, that’s an issue as well. So I think that the city commission certainly recognizes that housing affordability is an issue. There have been, I think some really good projects and thinking, I think since 2002, about putting solar on affordable housing projects. The ptarmigan apartments had solar put on them in 2002, there are a number of other developments that have it, the latest is the, uh, river rock residences, which has solar. And, and so I think that that’s kind of a, a positive movement there. The latest, uh, development did not get solar, but they did get their a hundred percent heated by heat pumps. And so there’s no gas involved there. So that’s, I think that’s a positive thing as well. You know, community solar would, would of course be the best way to kind of address this, but that’s not allowed under Montana law. And there have been attempts, I think, two sessions ago on a legislature to try to make net metering flexible enough to do that, but that did not pass. So I’m sure you see issues like that elsewhere across the country, but we’re kind of scratching our heads about how to really make the renewable energy distribution.
John Farrell: Yeah. There’s, it’s been interesting to see how other cities have approached this. I’ve mentioned on a few podcasts, Providence, Rhode Island in their climate, the making of the climate justice plan and the way that they interfaced with the community, ended up targeting… In their case, they had a lot of heavy industry in a port. And so the communities near that facility talked about the health impacts of the criteria pollutants, the particulates and whatever. And so they had a real strong focus then on how they would reduce transportation emissions as part of their plan and in Minneapolis, where I’m from as well, they have a couple of designated geographic areas called green zones where they prioritize investment then with city funds that have a higher proportion of minority residents and lower income populations. So it’s been a lot of really interesting ways that cities have approached that.

And we talked about this earlier, but I wanted to kind of circle back to it about the work that you’ve done with other cities. You’ve already mentioned Bozeman and Missoula are, have these similar commitments. You talked about the kind of stakeholder collaboration conversation with Northwestern energy. Are there other ways that you’re collaborating with these other communities, sharing strategies? I don’t know if there’s ways that you can even act collectively or if given the geographic distances between the cities, if that makes it challenging. I remember driving from city to city in Montana and they’re not close. And this is from someone who lives in Minnesota, which also has some fairly big distances between places. How has that been to try to work together in these different communities?

Mark Juedeman: It’s been really gratifying working with my counterparts over in Missoula City and county and Bozeman. And like I said, that first meeting was actually convened in Big Sky. They are another community that was very interested in these topics and have similar goals. And so, you know, those communities already represent about a quarter of Northwestern’s Montana customer base, and those communities are also some of the fastest growing in the state. And so that’s only going to continue to increase and, you know, we think that’s a powerful kind of strong collective voice that the utility has to pay attention to. And we’re definitely looking to grow that group. There’s been a lot of great activity in other areas, not necessarily with adoption of a specific hundred percent goal, but with the adoption of climate action plans, communities like Livingston, red lodge, Whitefish, communities [inaudible], even talk to a group up in Libby, that’s working on these issues. And I would also mention the tribal communities and, you know, the Black Feet have a climate adaptation plan, the Flathead reservation, a Salish Kootenai tribes. I’d like to point out that they have the largest tribally owned hydro project in the nation. And so that’s 208 megawatts at the Salish dam and they have their Energy Keepers Incorporated business that sells that power to different customers. And I think, I think that that strategy is working. The fact that Northwestern did sit down with these groups in these stakeholder processes and also, you know, Missoula is really got to give them credit for leading the way. They were the first to pass the resolution back in April of 2019, and then also signed a memorandum of understanding with the utility for work together to allow them to achieve that goal. And then recently released a draft implementation plan that the utility was part of developing as well.

And so there were six different components or work plans in that document. And unfortunately the seventh was supposed to be that Utah model and utility just wouldn’t agree to that one, but so I’m not going to go through all six of those, but, uh, you know, there’s lots of areas of overlapping interests, electrification of transportation, obviously good for the utility as well. And they have their own internal plan for converting their fleet to electric vehicles.

Mark Juedeman: And yeah, I mean, that’s a, you know, we’ve been thinking about electrifying everything. That’s going to be someone difficult, especially as far as heating goes with current technology. And then of course greening the grid is the other side of that, which is, of course we’re talking about here today. I would also, there are a couple of projects we were talking about worked on in Bozeman and Missoula. They called them their pilot projects. They invested a million dollars in each of those communities, mainly in Bozeman. I think it was a kind of like a community solar project, not really community solar, but a large solar array that feeds into the grid there in Bozeman. And Missoula I think he had a number of smaller solar projects on some of their school campuses. And there was a good moment to do that in Helena as well. These are based in these pilot projects or kind of research projects where Northwestern Energy to look at new technologies and see how they may work out. Northwestern Energy is now working with Helena with kind of a community panel to look at doing a pilot project here. We would have liked that to be, you know, really solar focused. They have an interest in looking at distributed storage, solid state storage, actually. So it’s kind of cool. We’ve been working with them and together we’ve kind of come to an idea of trying to integrate some of that distributed storage with some of our solar projects, one with one of these 50 kilowatt solar projects and the other with one of the affordable housing projects that you have solar on it to see how that integrates, so that, that should be pretty cool. I hope, I hope that that leads to better things in the future.
John Farrell: I just wanted to take a second to plug this new podcast that I was talking, it was someone who was on my podcast, but it’s called city climate corner, but it’s done by a city council member in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and another climate advocate. And they’re specifically looking at strategies for small and midsize cities around clean energy and climate change. So I think there’s a handful of episodes at this point, but Larry Kraft, who is one of the, who’s the city council member, who was on my podcast to talk about St. Louis Park, which also has a a hundred percent commitment is doing that podcast. And he has some particularly good stories to tell about the way that youth have done organizing in his community to help support the climate action. So just want to take a minute to, to plug that if you haven’t heard of it. Cause I think it could be a useful resource, but I’d like to just wrap up by asking you, you know, what advice do you have for other cities, whether it’s other cities in Montana or other cities in the Mountain West that are trying to consider this or across the country, you know, you’re deep in the throws of trying to figure out how do you get from point a to point B. You’ve got this commitment, you’ve got a pretty good set of sense of the landscape, what should other folks be thinking about if they’re thinking of making this pledge or trying to sit down to figure out how they get there?
Patrick Judge: Uh, I would say, uh, persistence, familiarity with the local constraints that, you know, trying to focus on your opportunities that you have in your communities. Like I mentioned, maybe the a hundred percent and framing these goals in terms of climate, isn’t the approach for all communities, but you can still make tremendous strides to increase the efficiency of your operations or to have the same outcome of reducing related carbon emissions. One example is Billings has a really strong energy conservation commission. And so they’ve made a lot of, a lot of progress and, and they’re looking at being a LEED certified community. So, you know, that approach seems to have some traction. I guess it’s being flexible to tailor your specific strategies, to what, to what works best for your community.
Mark Juedeman: I think it was, you know, a strong coalition building that, that got us, the resolution in the first place, a number of environmental organizations and parents and children advocates, and so on in this area that, that got us there along again with a supportive city commission and the mayor. And I think it’s the coalition building that Patrick’s working on with Missoula and Bozeman and other communities that’s going to make the difference in whether we are able to get some real commitments from Northwestern Energy towards renewable energy.
John Farrell: Well Mark and Patrick, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about the hundred percent renewable energy commitment in Helena and the work that you’re putting into it. It’s just great to hear about the progress that you’ve made and to share that story with others who are going through the same struggle.
Patrick Judge: Thanks so much for reaching out. And this has been great.
Mark Juedeman: I enjoyed it, John. Thank you.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this Voices of 100% episode of Local Energy Rules with Patrick Judge and Mark Juedeman from Helena Montana, discussing the city’s recently adopted 100% renewable electricity pledge. On the show page, look for links to the policy announcement, the city’s climate plan, and other related local initiatives. On our website, you can also find ILSR’s Community Power Map detailing the state policies that give cities more flexibility and choice over their energy sources, as well as the Community Power Toolkit and interactive collection of stories of how cities have pursued their clean energy goals. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy with editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local, and thanks for listening.


Driven to Sustainability by Identity

Patrick Judge and Mark Juedeman were both drawn to work around sustainability and climate change because of their backgrounds.

Judge, Helena’s Sustainability Coordinator, was born and raised in Helena. His love for natural amenities and professional interest in the physical sciences drive him to make Helena a cleaner, more sustainable place. Moreover, Judge’s experience working on climate change issues allowed him to identify environmental threats to tourism and agriculture.

Clearly… global climate change is the most pressing issue facing us today on the environmental front, and beyond that, with serious threats to Montana’s quality of life: with the wildfires, and public health implications of that, and drought threatening our largest industries of agriculture and tourism.

— Patrick Judge

Similarly, Mark Juedeman’s identity as a Montana native and educational background in geology led him to sustainability work and his role on the Citizens Conservation Commission. From being an early solar power adopter in Louisiana to his experience installing wind at his Montana ranch, Jeudeman’s commitment to Helena’s 100% renewable energy transition is evident in his lived experiences.

Creating Lasting Change, Despite Resistance

Together, Juedeman and Judge have helped Helena advance toward its sustainability goals. 30 percent of the city’s electricity supply already stems from hydro, wind, and solar energy. By 2030, the City of Helena plans to run on 100% clean electricity community-wide.

Helena’s clean electricity resolution was born from a 2009 Climate Change Action Plan, which drew inspiration from over 40 community recommendations on how to transition Helena to clean energy. More importantly, the 100% clean electricity goal was revitalized by a 2017 citizen conservation board led by Juedeman.

These sustainability efforts, however, have been met with major backlash from local and state officials. In the last five years, Helena has struggled within the confines of:

  • Reduced tax credits for conservation and renewable energy
  • Additional fees on electric vehicles
  • Attacks on net metering and a cap of 50 kilowatts on distributed solar
  • Preemption bills to limit the imposition of carbon taxes by local governments

With resistance coming down from the top, Helena community members have responded with grassroots organizing to broaden community support. The city is also working on its own energy efficiency and has also opted into a Property Assessed Clean Energy loan program, which provides zero-interest loans for improvements to energy efficiency or the installation of solar.

We face tremendous headwinds from the legislature and the executive branch. And so that’s kind of our motivation for doing everything we can at our city level.

— Mark Juedeman

Community solar legislation would help make the transition more equitable, says Juedeman, because there is an affordability crisis in Montana and many cannot afford to own their own home. Since there is no state legislation allowing it, Helena has piloted some projects installing solar on affordable housing complexes.

Warily Partnering with Northwestern Energy

Another challenge to achieving Helena’s renewable energy goals? The regional monopoly utility company: Northwestern Energy. Northwestern Energy has a 220 megawatt coal plant that the company plans to operate until 2042, says Judge, along with plans to build a new 175 megawatt gas plant in the future. It will be difficult for Helena to reach its goals if the utility is serving them with electricity from these generation sources.

On the positive side, Northwestern Energy did hold a 2019 stakeholder convening with leaders from cities including Helena, Missoula, and Bozeman to discuss how the utility can serve their communities, says Judge.

We have had many conversations with the utility and, you know, we’re optimistic that we could make some progress.

— Patrick Judge

The group became interested in replicating Utah’s 2019 Community Renewable Energy act. However, Northwestern Energy did not think an opt-out model was feasible in Montana. After the stakeholder input, Northwestern Energy is moving forward with an opt-in green tariff program.

Those communities already represent about a quarter of Northwestern’s Montana customer base, and those communities are also some of the fastest growing in the state… We think that’s a powerful, strong collective voice that the utility has to pay attention to.

— Mark Juedeman

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how towns and cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.


This is the 31st episode of our special  Voices of 100%series, and episode 137 of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Follow Angel Ornelas:
Angel Ornelas

Angel Ornelas was an intern with the Energy Democracy Initiative in 2021. Angel is passionate about environmental justice and has previous experience in community organizing/mentorship in both the Dallas and Los Angeles communities.

Follow Maria McCoy:
Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a research associate with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.