The City and County of Missoula reached an agreement with NorthWestern Energy to work together on several sustainability issues, including utility-scale renewable energy projects.

The agreement, which the Missoula City Council unanimously approved June 22, is a nonbinding memorandum of understanding.

In an online update on its website, the city likened the agreement to "a handshake to start a working relationship."

The city and county have committed to achieving 80 percent clean energy by 2025 and 100 percent clean energy by 2030. However, the memorandum expires in 2024, although the parties can agree to extend it.

Under the agreement, the utility will work with the city and county "to pursue mutually beneficial energy projects and programs that advance the City's and County's 100 percent clean electricity goal."

The projects could include new utility-scale and community-scale renewable energy resources; expanding energy efficiency and other demand-side measures; transportation electrification; modernizing the distribution grid; and resilience planning.

NWE and the local governments also agreed in the memorandum to collaborate on "mutually beneficial carbon-free solutions, such as energy storage . . . to provide flexible capacity to integrate renewable energy."

Further, the parties agreed to work together with the Montana PSC and state lawmakers in support of the goals laid out in the memorandum.

NorthWestern also agreed to share data on aggregated electricity and natural gas consumption for the Missoula urban area and the county, as well as emissions data for its Montana resource portfolio.

The agreement also iterates the guiding principles for the work. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is first, followed by equity, specifically reducing barriers to participation for "low- and fixed-income households, Native peoples, people of color, and frontline communities."

These are followed by cost, public education and engagement, and last, economic development.

Under cost, the agreement specifies that the city and county will pursue cost-effective actions to reach the goals. The memorandum also says the utility will be able to recover costs and that the collaboration will "avoid" shifting costs to other NorthWestern customers, unless approved by the MPSC.

"This is an opportunity for NorthWestern Energy to provide communities with resources needed to meet their sustainability goals," NWE spokeswoman Jo Dee Black told Clearing Up.

The agreement is the first of its kind for the utility, but NorthWestern expects it will not be the last.

"We anticipate this memo of understanding will be the first and there will be others established with other jurisdictions," she said.

The agreement lays out the necessary elements for partnering with the utility, Chase Jones, energy and conservation coordinator for the City of Missoula, said at the June 22 Council meeting.

The agreement is short on details, but it is specific enough that the city and county governments and NorthWestern can hold each other accountable for implementing the goals, he said.

Missoula relies on NorthWestern for roughly 95 percent of its energy, noted Diana Maneta, the county's energy and conservation coordinator, at the meeting, according to news reports.

About 60 percent of that power comes from clean energy resources, primarily hydro, wind and solar, Maneta said.

The agreement specifies that new resources must be used to replace the 40 percent of fossil-fuel fired resources providing electricity to Missoula.

The parties agreed to finish a plan by Dec. 1, for implementing the memorandum's goals. Annual reports are slated to be filed March 31 of each year.

Contributing Editor

Dan has covered stories from Seattle to Tbilisi; spent time with the AP, Everett Daily Herald and Christian Science Monitor; and was twice a member of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife have three young children and live in Seattle.