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Recent coverage of the Big Sky power line upgrade opens the door to a broader discussion of how best to meet our energy needs (and keep long term energy rates as low as possible) in an energy economy that's 1., moving away from the old paradigm of centralized generation and long-distance, high-voltage electrical transmission and, 2, giving the health of the environment a higher priority than propping up the coal industry.

A new paradigm is grabbing hold in the residential, commercial and public sectors of our economy. That is: local distributed or “on site” electrical generation and consumption (wind, solar, small scale hydro, biomas, geothermal, micro turbines, combined heat and power systems etc.) conservation, efficiency and smart-grid technologies (to increase the efficiency and capacity of existing electrical transmission systems rather than of building costly new ones at rate payer expense).

And it¹s actually the American marketplace and economic reality, rather than environmental regulation, that¹s the primary driver of the change. When major corporations like Ford, General Electric, 3M, Alcoa, Google, Anheuser-Busch, Campbell Soup Company, Microsoft, Starbucks, Walgreens, Staples and countless others start turning their backs on 130-year-old generation and transmission technology and embrace the new paradigm, somethings up. Free enterprise is saying, “It's time for a change.”

In so far as the Big Sky upgrade goes, a reasonable question might be: Could the energy needs of the Big Sky community have been met if a strong commitment had been made to undertake the kind of visionary energy conservation, efficiency, and on-site electrical generation strategies now utilized in several Colorado, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Utah, Washington and California skiing resorts and communities?

Many of these areas and their businesses actually advertise and showcase their accomplishments to attract visitors and business. They save and produce enough power that new transmission lines essentially become a non issue. (Note: The Ski Area Citizen'¹s Coalition has given the Big Sky Resort “A” grades for habitat protection and protecting watersheds, but “D” grades in energy and environmental policy categories).

Or take Greensburg, Kan., a small town in a conservative state that's “seen the light” and is so energy self sufficient and conservation and efficiency oriented that it's virtually off the grid. Townspeople and the mayor brag that “we're 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent of the time.” The John Deere dealership in Greensburg is one of the most energy efficient buildings in the United States.

A large new office building in Seattle generates as much power over a year's time as it takes off the grid, making in a “Net Zero” facility. It's primary power source? Solar! Solar In Seattle!

The new energy paradigm is, for obvious reasons, being met with strong resistance by those who benefit from the status quo. Unfortunately, these self interests still carry a lot of political clout, witness recent Montana legislative sessions.

But the new paradigm will prevail. In Oregon, the governor has committed the state to meeting 100 percent of its new energy needs over the next 10 years through conservation and efficiency. Just one key feature of his plan is creating low-interest loans for energy efficiency and conservation home retrofits payable in long-term installments on consumer's power bills.

The Bonneville Power Administration is also on board. They plan on meeting 85 percent of new power demand over the next 20 years through conservation and efficiency.

The day will come when a Greensburg, Kan., isn't an anomaly. But for now we here in Montana should expect no less than the full, careful and serious public vetting and consideration of all viable energy options and alternatives before we build (and pay for in higher rates) any new, centralized power plants or string more wire.

It¹s time for a change.

John Vincent is a former eight-term member of the Montana House of Representatives, Bozeman City commissioner and mayor, Gallatin County commissioner and Montana Public Service commissioner.

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