On a hot summer afternoon, the sun beat down on a field north of Bozeman where the city has installed solar panels, generating the energy to power 60 homes.

The solar installation — called a community solar project — is a partnership between Bozeman, NorthWestern Energy and Montana State University that collects data about solar energy production and residential and commercial energy consumption.

The data could help the Public Service Commission establish policies that enable customers to buy a share of renewable energy from the state’s regulated utility and then receive a credit on their energy bill. The approach could be key to expanding renewable energy in Bozeman and across Montana.

It's also one of dozens of city initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to climate change.

Local governments across the country have been working to address climate change through efforts like those in Bozeman, especially because of recent inaction at the federal level.

In Montana, Bozeman was the first city to create a climate action plan and Missoula stands out for setting and working toward ambitious climate-related goals. The two cities’ initiatives are serving as examples for what the state can do on a larger scale as it works to address climate change through Gov. Steve Bullock’s recently launched Montana Climate Solutions Council.

“We know the local commitments by themselves won’t address climate change, but they show that people are interested in and want change,” said Summer Nelson, the director of the Montana chapter of the Sierra Club. “Any community can be an example and take leadership on this.”

Despite the work in Bozeman and Missoula, local leaders have expressed concern about their ability to make changes aggressive enough to limit the effects of climate change, especially without significant support from state and federal government.

Bozeman initiatives

Bozeman began work on a climate action plan in 2006 when then-mayor Jeff Krauss joined more than 1,000 mayors in signing the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a pact to reduce their city’s carbon emissions below 1990 levels.

By 2008, Bozeman had finalized a municipal action plan that outlined policies to reduce city government emissions 15% below 2008 levels by 2020. In 2011, the city decided to go beyond government emissions, setting a target of reducing all emissions in Bozeman 10% below 2008 levels by 2025. 

In 2017 after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, the city endorsed the agreement. Bozeman is working to determine the local benchmarks that align with the global goal. The benchmarks will likely have to be more aggressive than the city’s previous goals, sustainability program manager Natalie Meyer said.

Bozeman tracks its greenhouse gas emissions to see if it's meeting the reduction targets.

By 2016 — the most recent year for which data is available — there had been no decline in the city’s greenhouse gas emissions as compared to 2008 levels. At the same time, the city’s population grew 27%. Although the data indicates Bozeman isn’t making measurable progress toward its goal, emissions have declined on a per-person basis.

“We’re doing good things, but it’s not enough for a true reduction in carbon emissions,” Meyer said. “We’re growing incredibly fast, so for some communities what we’re doing in Bozeman would make a significant impact, but for us, we need some dramatic changes if we’re going to reduce emissions.”

The dramatic changes could include investing more heavily in renewable energy, retrofitting many more buildings to increase energy efficiency and cutting down on transportation by prioritizing busing, biking and walking.

“I think it’s up to the community to really decide what’s appropriate based on the data we provide,” Meyer said. “I also think it will be challenging to reduce emissions without support at the state and federal level, but we have to weigh that against the cost of not setting an aggressive target and working toward it.”

To meet its goals, Bozeman is working on dozens of initiatives, including replacing all streetlights with LED lights, making city buildings more energy efficient and lobbying NorthWestern Energy to incorporate more renewable energy sources into the electrical grid.

One of the most successful initiatives is the Bozeman Energy Project, Meyer said. Through the project, the city gives businesses grants of up to $2,500 to increase energy efficiency. So far, 11 businesses have completed work through the project, saving 165,200 kWh per year — the equivalent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 25 passenger vehicles, Meyer said. Twelve additional businesses are in the process of completing energy-efficient upgrades through the program.

West Paw, a company that manufactures dog products, participated in the Bozeman Energy Project, using the $2,500 grant in combination with money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to install LED lights in its parking lot, production area and the outside of its building. West Paw is on track to recoup the cost of the new lights in about a year, making the investment worth it, said executive assistant Karin Jennings.

The Co-op on West Main Street also received a $2,500 grant that it used along with a $6,031 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and $281 from NorthWestern Energy. The money went toward a $30,000 project to install LED lights above aisles, in refrigeration cases and outside the store. The LED lights resulted in a 5% decrease in the Co-op’s annual energy bill and keep food fresh longer, said facilities manager Chris Berman.

Jennings and Berman both said the city grant motivated them to increase energy efficiency but said their businesses likely would have installed LED lights without city money because they prioritize the environment.

The city commission is also taking steps to address climate change. Commissioners have focused on water conservation through policies such as incentivizing residents to reduce their water consumption by charging more to those who use more water, said commissioner Terry Cunningham. They also try to be an example for city residents and businesses by making city buildings more energy efficient, by purchasing electric vehicles and by emphasizing recycling.

“While a single city can take steps to reduce carbon output, it takes a committed consortium of cities to push for systemic change on a state or national level,” Cunningham said. He added that he thinks cities like Bozeman must work with the governor’s office, the Legislature and the Public Service Commission if the state is going to make meaningful progress on climate change.

City officials also work with local businesses, nonprofits and the Bozeman Climate Partners, an advisory group of residents, a city commissioner and city staff, who are working on projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We can’t do this alone,” Meyer said.

In the coming months, Bozeman will update its climate action plans. A group of residents, business people, experts and city officials will review existing goals, update project ideas and add new policies.

“Enough has changed in the last 11 years that it’s time to refocus our plans,” Meyer said.

During the climate planning process, residents will also be able to share goals and identify projects they would like Bozeman to embrace in its new climate action plan. A draft of the new plan which will focus on adapting to the changing climate, will go to the city commission in December and will be available for public review in February. The city commission likely will adopt a final plan in July.

The Sierra Club recognizes that adaptations to climate change are important but wants local governments to focus primarily on community-wide efforts to be carbon free because doing so is the surest way to limit the negative impacts of climate change, Nelson said.

Unlike Bozeman, Gallatin County doesn’t have climate action plans. County administrator Jim Doar said he reached out to some county officials, including the commissioners, to see if they were interested in discussing climate change for this story. None were.

Missoula approach

While Bozeman was the first city in Montana to publish a climate action plan, Missoula stands out for having some of the state’s most aggressive goals. City and county officials are working to achieve carbon neutrality and to make major adjustments to adapt to the changing climate.

Local leaders attribute Missoula’s success largely to the partnership between the city government, county government and a nonprofit, Climate Smart Missoula.

The city of Missoula is aiming for its government operations to be carbon neutral by 2025. The city also has community-wide goals that include being zero waste by 2050 and being carbon neutral. A timeframe has not been set for this last goal.

To achieve these targets, the city has several lengthy planning documents that outline dozens of initiatives, including increasing the number of electric vehicles in the city’s fleet, expanding renewable energy and growing compost operations, said energy conservation coordinator Chase Jones. The city also hopes to purchase carbon offsets in the future, which a local government has not yet done in Montana.

Missoula County has its own goal. In March, it announced the goal of having county operations carbon neutral by 2035. The county is now developing a plan to meet this goal, said Diane Maneta, energy conservation and sustainability coordinator.

Outside of their individual goals, the city and county are collaborating on an initiative to have all electricity in the Missoula urban area, where the majority of the population resides, carbon free by 2030, aligning with the Sierra Club’s target. It is the first place in the state to set this goal.

To achieve it, local officials are working on several projects including investing in community solar projects with Missoula Electric Cooperative and making buildings more energy efficient.

City and county governments also are partnering with Climate Smart Missoula to create a climate resiliency plan that outlines ways to adapt to a future with hotter, drier summers, lower snowpack, increased wildfires and more frequent floods. The city and county are on track to adopt the plan by the end of 2019. The plan could include projects like creating public clean air spaces where people can escape wildfire smoke.

“These goals are bold and are what Missoula can do,” Jones said. “We are addressing what we can control in our community, but the effects of climate change don’t know borders. What we can do is work diligently on our goals and hope it inspires others to do their part and prompts policies that can help us meet our goals.”

Setting aggressive goals is an important step, but to address climate change, cities must attain them. Jones and Maneta said they are optimistic that Missoula can meet its targets but are worried about the monetary and time constraints they face. Local government has limited resources and investing in the policies and infrastructure to tackle climate change is expensive and takes time. 

“Putting together initiatives that are this large and involve this many groups takes money and time, but science says that climate change is urgent and that we don’t have unlimited time,” Jones said. “How do we move fast enough and find the resources, so the worst impacts aren’t irreversible?”

To pool their limited resources, the city, county and Climate Smart Missoula must work together, he said. Their partnership began in 2016 after a grassroots group created a climate action plan. A member of the group, Amy Cilimburg, then launched Climate Smart Missoula with a $15,000 city grant to work with local government to carry out the plan.

By working both within and outside government, Missoula is chipping away at its climate goals and has been able to engage more people in its efforts, Cilimburg said.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” she said. “But what is encouraging is that some of what we’re doing in Missoula is being a leader, helping to develop the momentum and set the example for other communities. And we look to other communities for ideas too. There are a lot of good ideas out there to tackle this problem.”

Measuring progress

The Sierra Club has long been working with cities to develop climate goals and, based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggests cities aim to have their electrical sectors carbon free by 2030 and their entire communities carbon free across all sectors by 2050 — likely more aggressive goals than those Bozeman has but similar to Missoula's efforts.

“The science is showing us that even (2030 and 2050) might not be fast enough, but we think that (these goals) are ambitious yet achievable for local governments to be pursuing,” said Nelson, who worked with Missoula to develop its climate goals.

When cities set aggressive goals, it can inspire others to follow suit. In Colorado, Minnesota and Utah, enough cities set renewable energy goals that the utilities in those areas agreed to meet the cities’ commitments or decided to set their own renewable energy goals. Nelson said this is something that could happen in Montana as more cities decide to stop using carbon-based energy. NorthWestern then might focus more on carbon-free energy generation.

The Sierra Club tracks cities’ goals to be carbon free but has not yet cataloged how successful they are at meeting these targets. The organization is now working to quantify cities’ progress and will publish its results next year. Even without this data, the Sierra Club said efforts to reduce carbon emissions on the local level are having a measurable impact by helping reach the global benchmarks set in the Paris agreement.

“Cities inspire each other to set these goals. In Montana, we’re hearing from more and more communities that are developing their own climate plans,” Nelson said. “These efforts are having an impact.”

Perrin Stein can be reached at 406-582-2648 or at pstein@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter @PerrinStein.

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