“Treasure State” Turning From Coal To Renewable Energy

State Economy

The population of the “Treasure State,” Montana is approximately 1.09 million people[1]. Montana is the 44th  most populated state in the United States.

In 2020, Montana’s economy was ranked 47th in the United States in gross domestic product (GDP)[2]. The state’s economy is dependent on the agriculture, mining, forestry, healthcare, energy, and tourism industries[3].

Environment Policies

In 2005, Montana enacted a renewable energy standard for all investor owned utilities to sell 15% of the electricity from renewable sources by 2015[4].

In 2010, Montana established an energy policy[5] designed to “promote energy efficiency, conservation, production, and consumption of a reliable and efficient mix of energy sources that represent the least social, environmental, and economic costs and the greatest long- term benefits to Montana citizens.”

In January 2021, Montana utilities[6] used renewable energy (55.2%), coal (43.9%) and natural gas (0.9%) to generate electricity. Hydropower, wind, and solar are the primary source of renewable energy to generate electricity in Montana.

Montana’s use of inexpensive renewable energy contributes to the state’s low cost of electricity. In January 2021, the average cost of residential electricity in Montana was 10.72 ¢ per kWh, compared to the national average of 12.69 ¢ per kWh.

Recent renewable energy developments in Montana include:

  • 750 MW Wind Project – In January 2021, American utility, NextEra Energy announced plans to begin construction in 2021 on a wind project, which will be located approximately 250 miles east of the state capital, Helena. The project is scheduled to be commissioned by year-end 2022.
  • 240 MW Wind Project – In December 2020, American electric power company, PacifiCorp commissioned the Prior Mountain Wind Farm, which is located approximately 200 miles southeast of Helena.
  • 200 MW Hydropower Pumped Storage Project – American renewable energy company, Absaroka Energy is continuing work on the Gordon Butte Pumped Storage Project, which is located approximately 65 miles east of Helena.
  • 160 MW Solar Project – American renewable energy company, Clenera announced plans to build a solar project at a location approximately 125 miles southwest of Helena.
  • 150 MW Solar Project – In May 2021, Clenera began work on the Cabin Creek solar project, which is located approximately 375 miles east of Helena. The solar project is scheduled to be commissioned by year-end 2023.
  • 80 MW Solar Project – American electric power company, Greenbacker Renewable Energy has begun work on the MTSun Solar project, which will be located approximately 200 miles southeast of Helena. The solar project is scheduled to be commissioned by August 2022.
  • 15 MW Hydropower Project – The Gibson Dam Hydroelectric Company is continuing work to add hydropower generating capabilities to a dam owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The hydropower project is located on the Gibson Dam, which is approximately 75 miles northwest of Helena.


Commercial coal mining began in Montana around 1865[7], prior to statehood. Coal was initially used to fuel forges, furnaces, and steam engines.

In 2019, Montana had six operating coal mines[8], which produce approximately 34.5 million short tons of sub-bituminous, bituminous, and lignite coal. Montana’s coal is used by state utilities and exported to other states and overseas.

In 2010, 65.4% of Montana’s electricity was generated from coal-fueled power plants. In 2021, 43.9% of the state’s electricity was generated from coal-fueled power plants. Why the decrease in the use of coal?

  1. Economics The cost to generate power from wind, solar, and hydropower is significantly cheaper than coal. The cost to generate power from coal-fired plants is over twice the cost of wind or solar.
  2. EnvironmentCoal ash, the product of coal burned in a power plant contains arsenic, mercury, and lead; which are toxic. In 2019, coal ash was reported to have leaked into the ground water around 241 coal-fired plants in America[9].
  3. Climate Change Coal generates 30% to 40% more greenhouse gases than natural gas.

In 2010, fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) generated over 67% of the state’s electricity. In 2020, renewable energy generated over 55% of the state’s electricity!

Coal mining has been an integral part of Montana’s economy for over 150 years. However, Montana’s energy policy is to promote energy efficiency, conservation, and consumption of energy sources that provide the greatest long-term benefits to the citizens of the state.

Montana, unlike some other coal producing states; recognizes the overwhelming economic and environmental advantages of renewable energy.

Jack Kerfoot

Website – “Our Energy Conundrum”


[1] Montana Population 2021, World Population Review

[2] U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis

[3] Biggest Industries in Montana – World Atlas

[4] National Conference of State Legislators – State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals, January 4, 2021

[5] Montana’s Energy Policy Review – Senate Bill 290: A Look At Existing Policy, October 2010

[6] U.S. Energy Information Agency – Montana State Profile and Energy Estimates

[7] The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Montana’s First Commercial Coal Mine, by R. McDonald & M. Burlingame, January 1956

[8] U.S. EIA – Montana State Profile and Energy Estimates, Energy Analysis – Coal, February 18, 2021

[9] Reuters, “Coal Ash Contaminates Groundwater Near Most U.S. Coal Plants: Study” by Valerie Volcovici, March 3, 2019

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