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Peggy Miller seeks the High Ground

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The way Peggy Miller sees it, it’s a matter of when—not whether—Missoula starts satisfying its energy demands with renewables instead of oil.

“It’s just a fact of life,” she says. “We are running out of oil and we’ve got to make a transition.”

Toward that end, Miller is working to launch High Ground Communities, a project that seeks to transform Missoula into the first of a network of 12 subsidized cities that shift completely away from oil dependence by crafting renewable energy supplies and bringing food production closer to home. Besides creating a city whose water, electricity, heat, food and vehicles wouldn’t be subjected to the whims and wars borne of oil shortages to come, Miller says the pilot project would also show other cities the way.

Miller, a longtime environmental and consumer lobbyist who moved to Missoula in 2005 to be closer to family after many years in Washington, D.C., says Missoula is the perfect place to start High Ground Communities because it’s full of locals who already are thinking and working on pieces of the energy puzzle, including university researchers and nonprofit activists.

After researching and writing a 30-page proposal outlining some of the hows and whys for creating High Ground Communities, Miller hopes to convene a Missoula steering committee to draft a 10-year plan and lay out the steps for implementing it. She’s also begun shopping the idea around other cities, such as Albuquerque, N.M., where she recently met with city officials, whom she says welcomed the dialogue.

Of course, there’s the trifling question of how Miller’s revolutionary vision would be funded. She estimates it would cost between $1 billion and $2.8 billion to retrofit all of Missoula, which would include super-insulating all homes and businesses and installing alternative fuel systems to reduce their energy demands, and setting up wind and solar energy farms whose power would be transformed and stored locally as hydrogen at some 80 hydrogen filling stations. It would also include millions for subsidizing residents’ car fuel costs, to bridge the gap between the current cost of gasoline and the higher rate for hydrogen, as well as $800 million to purchase land and development rights for farming to bring Missoulians’ food production close to home and eliminate transportation costs associated with shipping food long distances.

The glaring price tag doesn’t seem to stymie Miller.

“This is not cheap, but at the same time $3.4 trillion has left the country over the last three decades to buy oil,” Miller says. “If we kept that money in our communities, people would be amazed at what it could do.”

She begs people not to let the practical costs scare them away from examining the grand plan, and predicts corporations, the federal government and “socially responsible investors” will be eager to throw capital toward a pilot project that could demonstrate a way to bridge the oil dependence of the last century to the energy economy of coming decades.

“For the moment, don’t worry about the money. Worry about whether you’d be willing to change,” says Miller, who’s sent her proposal to people like Bill Gates and Al Gore. Closer to home, she’s sent it off to the likes of Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Missoula Mayor John Engen.

Paul Williamson, director of hydrogen and alternative energy research and development at the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center, says Miller’s proposal may sound remote, but rapidly diminishing oil stores along with global warming make a switch to renewable energy sources attractive as well as ultimately unavoidable.

“I think it’s very feasible; in fact I think it’s almost a have-to,” Williamson says.

Island societies like Iceland and Hawaii, which are ahead of the energy-crunch curve compared to mainland communities, have already recognized the need to drastically change their energy infrastructures, and in Iceland, for instance, nearly all energy supplies have been converted to renewable sources like wind, solar and geothermal, which are increasingly being converted to hydrogen, which is easier to store.

California has recently opened some 30 hydrogen filling stations for hydrogen-fueled cars, and Williamson says there’s a plan to construct a hydrogen highway with filling stations stretching from California to Florida. Currently, however, hydrogen remains impractical because of high costs.

“The technology is here,” he says. “But as with any new technology, on the front end it’s more expensive.”

Part of the appeal of transforming an entire city—Missoula first, which Miller envisions to be followed by other university towns like Albuquerque, N.M., Denver, Colo., and Madison, Wisc.—is cities are small enough to be mobilized but big enough to create economies of scale and serve as a credible example.

“Having a model that other people can look at is very critical,” says Williamson. “You need a bunch of early adaptors to move technology forward.”

Miller says her proposal has been met with interest—if uncertainty about how to proceed—by dozens of people in the Garden City. She plans to keep shopping it around nationally, talking with potential funding sources and working to organize a steering committee that would further develop the idea. Still, she says, she recognizes the proposal may go nowhere, or that it might lie dormant until energy crunches provide an impetus.

Williamson hopes we don’t wait too long to think about big ideas like Miller’s.

“Human beings don’t perceive crisis until it arrives, and that’s the case here. There’s an oil crisis on the horizon…I see it as imperative that we move the energy paradigm off where we are now,” he says. “We’re not going to turn a switch and be automatically independent, but we need proposals and efforts like Peggy’s to move us forward.”

To get a copy of the High Ground Communities proposal, go to www.highlandwinds.com or call Peggy Miller at 541-7577.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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