(Guest Post) Tyler Gernant: Sustainable Energy Policy Starts and Ends Locally

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The last year brought a lot of changes to our world.  From a climate change and clean energy perspective, most of those changes have been bad.  Really bad.  2017 marked the warmest year on record for the world’s oceans.  The United States became the only nation in the world to publicly announce that it would not be part of the Paris climate agreement.  President Trump slapped stifling tariffs on solar panels and the parts used to make them.  The Trump administration is actively working to lease federal lands to anyone willing to harvest unsustainable and dirty energy from them.  The list could literally go on, and on, and on, and on . . .

But two really positive trends have emerged or continued emerging over the last year.  The first is a testament to the folks in private industry working on clean energy. Actual projects are bid out that would make unsubsidized renewable energy from new plants cheaper than coal and nuclear energy from existing plants.  Those projects are expected to be online in the early 2020s, which could produce a sea change in how the world gets its energy.  Most importantly, some of those projects contain battery storage, which has been the biggest problem for renewable sources that tend to produce power when it is in low demand.  Tesla also introduced their version of a solar roof, which provides a lifetime warranty and comes with an option for battery storage.  Electric vehicles are becoming more affordable and autonomous electric vehicles are just around the corner.  Much like the bad things happening on the national political stage, the list of private innovations and break-throughs could go on and on.

The second positive trend emerging from the last year is really the most interesting.  Given all of the negative actions being taken nationally, local governments are picking up the slack in a big way.  Over 350 mayors have pledged their support for the Paris climate agreement, representing at least 65 million people in the U.S.  This doesn’t even include the states, universities, and businesses that have also pledged their support.  Their actions follow public opinion on the matter.

In Montana alone, 52 percent of Montanans believe that wind or solar best represent the future of energy in the state.  Only 38 percent of Montanans believe that coal, oil, or natural gas represent the future of energy in our state.  Those are rather startling numbers when you consider the role coal and oil play in Montana.  Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Montanans who believe that our dependence on fossil fuels is a serious issue rose 13 percent from 53 percent in 2017 to 66 percent in 2018.  As the economics of clean renewables becomes more favorable, I would expect these numbers to continue to grow.

Unfortunately, politics at the state level in Montana have started to mirror the national level.  In the last legislative session, clean energy bills seemed to die rather ignominious deaths.  As a County Clerk and Treasurer, one bill was particularly near and dear to my heart.  That bill, the Property Assessed Clean Energy (“PACE”) bill, essentially died in the House Natural Resources Committee by one vote. Most other clean energy bills didn’t come that close.

With few results coming from the legislature, Montana’s local governments are looking to implement climate change and clean energy policy on their own.  In Missoula, concerned citizens have started a process to implement a PACE-like program that would provide low or no interest loans to fund clean energy improvements to homes and businesses. While some of this is new, many of these efforts have just found renewed focus as local governments realize that no one else is going to step up to the plate.  In a lot of ways, that is the most refreshing change of the last year.  Local governments tend to be much more stable in terms of who runs them.  Having effective leadership translates into positive change that can last for generations.  That makes local elections some of the most important, if only because they are so often overlooked.  If we ignore local offices, we toss aside one of our best chances to effectuate long-lasting and meaningful change.  After all, local governments will only strive to do more than mow the lawn if we elect people who strive to do more. This last year has shown us that we can and should endeavor for much more in our own communities.

Written by: Tyler Gernant – Follow him on Facebook here: Tyler Gernant

Tyler Gernant is the Missoula County Clerk & Treasurer. Tyler is dedicated to expanding services to help Missoula grow in a sustainable way and will continue to work at making Missoula a better place to live and work.

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