For the third time, a group of Montanans is working on a ballot initiative that would require that 80% of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2034.

MTCARES, the nonprofit behind Initiative 187, has filed with the Secretary of State for the 2020 election and has collected about 30% of the signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, said Russ Doty, a former Democratic state legislator and the initiative’s author. The group has until June 19 to gather the remaining signatures.

Initiative 187 aims to revise energy and tax laws to tackle climate change.

It would require NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities — the state’s privately owned utility companies — to increase their production of renewable energy gradually until it reaches 80% by Dec. 31, 2034. Utility companies would be prohibited from raising rates by more than 2% annually to achieve the target. Electric cooperatives could vote on whether to adopt these renewable energy standards.

Initiative 187 would also provide money to retrain workers, support apprenticeships, ensure coal and natural gas workers receive pensions and unemployment benefits and assist coal-reliant towns by replacing the state’s coal taxes with a tax on each kilowatt-hour of energy produced. Doty said the new tax would not increase taxes but would replace the loss in revenue from coal taxes as utilities stop producing coal.

The new law would enable homeowners to generate 100 kilowatts of power and government agencies, schools, churches and nonprofits to generate 250 kilowatts of power. NorthWestern Energy customers can now produce a maximum of 50 kilowatts. Neighborhood renewable energy facilities and aggregate net metering would also be allowed.

“I saw people with bumper stickers that said, ‘Honk if you believe in climate change,’” Doty said. “I thought we could do more, and as a former state representative and lawyer who’s worked in energy and consumer protection, I could do more by drafting this initiative.”

MTCARES worked to qualify the initiative for the ballot in 2016 and 2018. During those election cycles, the group was particularly successful in Gallatin County where five of the seven House districts met the threshold for ballot qualification, Doty said.

The group is again focusing on the Bozeman area and trying to replicate its earlier success.

For 2020, MTCARES has begun collecting signatures earlier than it did in previous years. Doty said the group needs to collect about 90 signatures per day to meet the ballot qualifications — signatures from 5% of voters in 34 of the 100 state House districts and a total of 25,468 signatures.

“This group is grassroots,” Doty said. “It’s mostly grandparents who want to do something for their grandkids before they check out. We don’t want to leave our grandkids with a future they can’t fix.”

If Initiative 187 gets on the ballot, it would then need approval from the majority of voters to become law. There are also parts of the new law that state legislators would occasionally have to review.

“Even if it doesn’t succeed, this drives the narrative about what Montanans want,” Doty said.

Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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