Home on the Range sets the bar high

The following is a guest blog from Plains Speaking, Northern Plains Resource Council’s blog, by Ed Gulick.

On Saturday, June 25, we celebrated the culmination of a lot of hard work by Northern Plains and Western Organization of Resource Councils EdGulick2016_1_2016-01-27-2members and staff as well as local design and construction professionals. We marked the 10-year anniversary of our move into our own building (called Home on the Range, or HOTR) with the addition of a new carport solar panel array. That means our building now produces 100% of the power it uses renewably and on-site.

From the beginning, Home on the Range was something special. It was Montana’s first LEED Platinum building (the highest standard in green building design), and we built it for less than the cost of a standard office building of the same size, proving that, by acting with intention, it doesn’t always cost more to get more.

Living our values

For 10 years, Home on the Range has provided a solid foundation for the work of our beloved organizations, including:

  • Comfortable, daylit space for staff and members to work and meet in;
  • Saving our organizations money through lower utility costs;
  • Allowing us to “live our values;” we can very confidently and powerfully speak about a vision of a more democratically run world of shared prosperity that is based on ecologically sound, locally owned enterprise and powered by renewable energy because we ourselves are living it;
  • And more to the point: we’ve got the numbers to prove it!
    • 20% savings in construction costs compared to conventional new construction;
    • Annual operating cost savings that allow us to dedicate more financial resources to our organizing work;
    • The knowledge that we don’t ever need to back down in the face of energy industry misinformation, because we’ve got a living lab that’s feeding us data and demonstrating what’s possible.

Home on the Range has served as a powerful model for other projects in our region. Since its construction, many other LEED projects have joined the ranks. In Billings, there are 13 LEED-certified buildings now, and 6 of them are Platinum, which I directly attribute to HOTR setting the bar early and high.

Setting the bar

On that Saturday, we got to celebrate that HOTR is raising that bar considerably higher.  With the dedication of the building’s new 24kW photovoltaic array, we are now generating 100% of the electricity the building will consume in a year.  It’s a model for distributed generation, in which power is generated by lots of mini-power plants close to where it is consumed.  And these little power plants use renewable energy from the sun and wind.  I’s now less expensive than power from dirty fossil fuel sources.

It’s also a step toward energy independence. Electric utilities tend to like centralized power plants and a monopoly status with guaranteed profits. They make the rules; they control the power and the money. The utilities have never had competition, and consequently they tend to be more autocratic than innovative.

Shooting for energy freedom

All of that is starting to change as more and more people are demanding the right to produce their own power, pushing back on the laws and corporate influence that enforce the centralized, expensive, fossil fuel-based business model. We’ve got our work cut out for us to get ever closer to that vision of a more democratically run world of shared prosperity and energy choice, but together, we’re getting there.

While we, with the generous support of our members, have gained the ability to make our own energy choices, many Montanans do not have these advantages and thus cannot participate in the benefits of the renewable energy economy because:

  • They can’t afford the upfront costs;
  • Their roofs are shaded, or have the wrong geometry;
  • Or maybe they don’t own the building in which they use electricity.

These are all barriers that Northern Plains is committed to overcoming in Montana to make clean energy — energy efficiency and renewables — accessible to all. We are working out innovative solutions that bring private capital to the table to finance green building retrofits and renewable energy for businesses and residences, including non-profits, low income housing, and in Indian Country. And we’re working with legislators to revise net-metering laws so that all Montanans have a shot at what we just accomplished.

As we embark on addressing those challenges ahead, HOTR is going to be our springboard, demonstrating what is possible. It is our base, our inspiration, and the physical embodiment of the strength of our organizations. We hope you’ll join us in continuing to push for a clean, renewable world.

Ed Gulick is a Past Chair of Northern Plains Resource Council and was the lead architect on Home on the Range.