A better way: Meeting Montana’s energy needs, the AERO way

The Helena-based Alternative Energy Resource Organization (AERO) just released a new report titled “Repowering Montana—A Blueprint for Home Grown Energy Self-Reliance.” Contrary to Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s energy plan, AERO says we should forget coal and export energy altogether and instead concentrate on meeting the needs of Montana’s families and businesses using the abundant and pollution-free renewable resources of the state. AERO’s recipe for doing just that is simple, direct, and can be implemented immediately using proven technologies.

The report, which is a must-read for anyone following or involved in the state’s ongoing energy debate, is available online at It was written by people with long experience and expertise in conservation and renewable energy, and provides a critical and competent “demand-side” counterpoint to the proponents of “supply-side” energy policy, who have, until now, dominated the discussion.

In a nutshell, the authors flatly repudiate calls to meet state or national energy needs using what they call “energy capital” in the form of “ancient sunlight banked” in fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Instead, they call for moving away from fossil fuels entirely and “living off our energy income.” That means using the energy that comes to us every day in the form of sun, wind, flowing water, growing plants and Earth’s own internal heat, which AERO says can produce all the electricity, heating and transportation fuels Montanans need while actually creating more jobs, a more resilient and sustainable economy, and a vastly cleaner environment for future generations.

So how would AERO do it? Well, at more than 100 pages of exhaustively foot-noted text, the report goes into considerably more detail than we have room for here. But even a taste should whet the appetite of anyone who wants to secure a better future for themselves and their families.

“Big Ideas” is a phrase we have heard often in relation to Montana’s energy landscape over the last few years, but AERO says “thinking small” is the best way to achieve the big goals. Instead of massive, hugely expensive industrial facilities and wasteful long-distance transmission lines, AERO’s blueprint calls for “a host of diverse, decentralized, appropriately scaled technologies” that focus on “what we can accomplish right here, where we live.”

A good example is what many refer to as Montana’s “transmission bottleneck,” which they see as an impediment to development and a reason to build new power lines to export electricity. AERO, however, calls the bottleneck a blessing. Citing California’s decision to buy only clean power and ongoing reductions in energy use by a number of large cities, the report concludes that “the demand for exported energy may not be there” by the time the plants and powerlines are built. Instead of getting drawn into a bidding war for market energy from new industrial-scale plants and transmission lines, AERO says, “it is to Montana’s advantage to meet its own power needs first, as reliably, as cleanly, and as inexpensively as possible” by using widely distributed energy production sources to serve local needs.

An added benefit is that distributed systems cost less and can come online as needed. For instance, the cost of a single billion-dollar industrial plant (if you could build one for that) would pay for 1,000 $1 million projects across the state. Plus, because distributed power takes advantage of local resources to serve local needs, it’s “less vulnerable to disruption from natural disasters (high winds, ice storms, etc.) or from human intervention (accidents at power plants, manipulation of energy markets with resultant price hikes, or deliberate sabotage).”

Before any new energy source is developed, however, AERO says it should pass the Test Criteria for Energy Resources, namely: Is the resource sustainable and renewable? Does its development emphasize conservation and efficiency and originate from current solar energy (direct or embodied in living plants) or wind or other regenerative energy? Does it avoid polluting our air, water, soil, bodies and views and avoid producing greenhouse gases? Is it produced close to the end user and scaled to allow wide participation in its production and distribution? And is it financed, owned and/or operated by Montanans and priced accessibly for all Montanans?

Refuting what it calls the “Business as Usual” approach to energy policy, the report states, “Conventional scenarios of extracting non-renewable resources and shipping them out of state—or, in the case of coal, burning it here and polluting our air, water and soil in order to spin off electrons to transmit elsewhere—are not sustainable practices over the long term.” Seeing “continuous growth in energy use” as “neither inevitable nor desirable, and certainly not sustainable,” the report concludes, “it is in Montana’s best economic interest to control, as much as possible, production, distribution, management and financing of our energy resources, with an eye to serving Montana’s needs first.”

AERO believes the “Path to the Future” is before us and is imminently attainable through conservation, a mix of available resources, and development of “demand-side management” via “smart meters” to reward consumers by allowing them to reduce their use of high-cost energy during peak demand periods. Importantly, AERO stresses that “citizens must play a central, participatory role in shaping Montana’s energy future” rather than leaving it up to “experts already in the energy business.”

All the technologies necessary to implement AERO’s sensible, sustainable plan are readily available and are already being successfully used throughout the world. All that’s necessary, AERO says, is for our political leaders to “muster the courage to tell Montanans what is truly at stake and build support to make the necessary changes”—which may be the only true impediment to moving Montana forward into a smart, sustainable and clean energy future.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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