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Will the push for clean power kill jobs or generate more?

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On a smoky day in late August, Gov. Steve Bullock stood inside a packed Top Hat rattling off the curriculum vitae of six western Montana entities he believes are "leading the way in renewable energy and job creation." The state is going to need more innovators like these as our energy economy continues to evolve, Bullock said, motioning to representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Flathead Electric Cooperative, Missoula-based MMW Architects and others. He didn't specifically mention the mounting pressure placed on sustainable energy enterprises by the public and by new federal policies, but the insinuation was clear.

"One of the most pressing challenges will be creating more good jobs in the energy economy while at the same time keeping our big sky clean, our rivers cold, our agriculture thriving and our kids and our families healthy," Bullock said. "That's very important because with the flexibility and the innovation that Montana has ... we can help create those opportunities."

The issue of job creation has loomed large in the discussion of renewable energy in Montana and will no doubt become an even more prominent question in the wake of the EPA's new Clean Power Plan rolled out last month. Calls for considerable emissions reductions here and nationwide have stoked fears among the state's labor community of possible job losses at plants like Colstrip. Addressing such concerns and coming up with creative solutions to meet reduction goals by 2030 is partly why the nonprofit coalition Montanans for Good Jobs and Clean Air, which sponsored the Aug. 27 Top Hat event, came together in the first place.

"As a labor movement and a labor federation, we've always been an all-of-the-above partner to this conversation," says Al Ekblad, executive secretary for Montana's AFL-CIO. "We will obviously do everything we can to address the potential implications on jobs that could come forward through the Clean Power Plan."

Among the entities singled out for one of the coalition's Innovator Awards was Missoula company Solar Plexus, founded in 1994 by Mary Hamilton and Lee Tavenner. Son Rip Hamilton returned to Missoula from Portland to join the business in 2000, about the same time changes to the state's net metering laws opened up new markets for Solar Plexus. By 2005, the company had hired its first full-time employee, Rip Hamilton says, and a few others have come onboard temporarily as needed. But after 21 years it's still a small, family-run operation.

Flathead Electric Cooperative was among six western Montana entities recognized last month by Gov. Steve Bullock for innovation and job creation in the clean - energy industry. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Flathead Electric Cooperative was among six western Montana entities recognized last month by Gov. Steve Bullock for innovation and job creation in the clean energy industry.

"Montana lags behind the national economy a little bit, and I think the renewable energy industry lags even further behind that," Hamilton says. "The last couple years had been pretty slow for us, and this year is on par with probably 2013. So it's picked up quite a bit this year, but we're still reluctant to hire anybody."

The reason for that reluctance, Hamilton adds, is the possibility of a seasonal slowdown ahead. If the company remains as busy through winter as it is right now, "We'll definitely have to hire some people in the spring."

Reports and studies on the promise of renewables over the past few years have painted an optimistic picture on the jobs front. The Montana Environmental Information Center and the Sierra Club last year released a comprehensive analysis of the effects of clean energy investments on employment statewide. Citing Montana's "ample potential for growth in clean energy production," the paper posited that wind, solar and energy efficiency projects could generate more than 4,000 new jobs by 2030, including short-term construction jobs. The American Wind Energy Association has also lauded the state's untapped renewable resources, ranking Montana one of the top states for potential wind generation. AWEA analyst Hannah Hunt says the wind industry supported 73,000 jobs nationwide in 2014.

Yet groups like the Count on Coal Montana campaign continue to openly challenge the renewable sector's ability to compete with the sheer volume of jobs associated with existing fossil fuel energy. Even some supporters of the push to expand solar, hydro, wind and other sustainable resources feel more traditional avenues like coal will be an important factor in the equation for years to come. The state's renewables are vast, Bullock said in a statement to the Indy, and there are many people working on ways to both diversify the state's energy portfolio and create high-quality jobs. But change can't come at the flip of a switch.

"We know that coal will continue to have an important role to play in our energy future," he said, adding he's supported carbon sequestration projects and cleaner coal technology initiatives for that very reason.

In fact, Ekblad says, how Montana goes about meeting the EPA's reduction goals could be a catalyst for good jobs outside the renewable sector—even at Colstrip itself. "There's significant work to be done not only in renewables but in producing cleaner power from coal, improving the [energy] grid," he says. "All of that is work that is potentially part of the impact of the Clean Power Plan."

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