Montana ballot initiative would boost renewable energy use

wind farm november elp

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A retired clergyman and an attorney want Montana voters to pass a law requiring power companies to buy and sell more renewable energy to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide — a gas tied to climate change — in the atmosphere.

John Soderberg, former minister of the Bozeman United Methodist Church, and lawyer Russ Doty have submitted the ballot measure that would require investor-owned utilities to gradually increase the amount of renewable energy they purchase for retail sale.

The goals would be 19 percent by 2018, 40 percent by 2025, 70 percent by 2040 and 80 percent by 2050.

The federal government has proposed that Montana reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 47 percent by 2030. Climate scientists believe carbon emissions need to be reduced by 80 percent "if we're not going to fry the Earth," Doty said.

The initiative proposes taxing electricity production to replace deposits that might be lost to the state's Coal Tax Trust Fund due to a decrease in coal mining.

Soderberg and Doty also propose adding a temporary tax — amounting to about $2.40 a year for five years for an average residential customer — to ensure displaced fossil fuel workers' pensions are fully funded and to allow them to receive unemployment benefits for up to two years while training for a new job.

The measure is intended to "address a coming huge problem and to do it in a way so that we're trying to be fair to the fossil fuel workers as well as the farmers and the fishermen and skiers and others that are going to be affected by the fact that we're heating up the globe," Doty said.

Soderberg and Doty had submitted a similar plan in August but withdrew it and made revisions after receiving feedback from legislative services and other state agencies.

The state will need some energy generated from fossil fuels, Doty said, because a certain base load must be met. But the amount of renewable energy can increase because its price is coming down, storage batteries are getting better and "when the wind isn't blowing the sun's usually shining," he said.

Doty acknowledges that some workers at coal power plants and coal mines will lose their jobs, but without a push for renewable energy, he said climate change will cost jobs in agriculture and tourism.

Some Montana-generated power is sold out of state, Doty said, meaning out-of-state residents will have to help pay the generation taxes, as well.

He said the coal community and utilities argue that a switch to renewable energy would lead to increased prices. However, he said recent solar and wind contracts have been signed at rates lower than the 6.84 cents-per-kilowatt supply price that NorthWestern Energy reported on Nov. 1.

Residents of Rosebud County are worried about losing the Colstrip power plants, but Doty said they could take advantage of the transmission lines they have to move renewable energy instead.

If the ballot language is approved, organizers would need the signatures of about 25,000 registered voters to put the issues on the November 2016 ballot.

"The only way this is going to succeed is with a huge educational effort," Doty said.

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