This week four students and their two instructors wheeled away from Billings, Montana to begin a three-week, 700-mile cycling tour to explore the state and its opportunities for producing clean energy. It’s the inaugural ride of the University of Montana course “Cycle Montana: Energy Alternatives for a New Century,” offered through the Wild Rockies Field Institute and led by Nicky Phear and Dave Morris. Along the way — a loop from Billings to Missoula via Helena and Glacier National Park — the students will visit a range of energy production sites, learn from a diversity of state, industry and environmental experts, and meet with local Montanans concerned with the impacts of climate change and energy sustainability on their communities.
Every few days New West will be publishing the students’ writings and photographs from the road. Here in this first installment you’ll find the raw contemplations and curiosities of the intrepid cyclists as they begin their trek. It’s a technical lesson on Montana’s energy picture, too. Enjoy, and check back often for updates.
Day One | Tuesday, May 29
“Ah, I love the smell of hydrocarbons in the morning,” Dave Morris, one of our course leaders announced this morning at the entrance to ExxonMobil’s Oil Refinery, just southeast of Billings. It is a prime location because the wind will carry pollutants away from major populations and the facility can draw water from the Yellowstone River, which plays a major part in production. Eight of us jumped out of the shuttle van (we start biking tomorrow) and filed into the main building to get the introduction. Our leaders, Kelly Drain, a mechanic, and Tracey Anderson, an environmental engineer, each wore crisp blue flame-retardant suits with attached earplugs and helmets equipped with face shields. We got the lowdown on safety. For us it boiled down to not rolling down the windows in the van unless we had eye protection on because the shwag of oil is a dusty material that is flying around in the air.
Out in the van, with the windows up, we started trying to pull the pieces of our energy system together. Understanding fossil fuels energy is key to understanding alternatives and the future of a renewable energy system. The process for this facility begins with a pipeline that brings crude oil all the way from Canada. This pipeline runs continuously and is tapped by all the major buyers of crude oil. When it gets to the refinery the oil is heating inside an atmospheric tunnel. Sixty thousand barrels go through the tower every day and are heated to 400 or 500 degrees. The heat is so intense it separates all that oil out by density. The heavier oil has more carbon and falls to the bottom of the tower. Lighter products like butane and propane, which burn cleaner, rise to the top. These rough products are pulled out on trays almost as quickly as they come in. Many of these various products are put in storage to be refined later. The refining can be done chemically, through heating or by mixing. The heaviest oil goes through several heating phases and eventually becomes “coke.” “Coke” is the dregs of the oil, the same stuff that we were avoiding by keeping the windows up. Across the street from ExxonMobil the dregs are burned to generate the huge amount of electricity that it takes to run this plant. Often times industrial plants like this one use ten percent of their energy product just to run their own facility.
Nearby, in the industrial sector of Billings, we visited PPL’s coal-fired Corette Generating Plant. At the Corrette Plant they burn 72,000 tons of Wyoming coal a day in one giant flaming ball. Wyoming coal is cleaner than Montana’s, which has caused air shed problems for Billings in the past.
|The Cycle Montana group in front of the Corette generating plant in Billings.|
The heat from the burning coal boils water and creates steam, which is directed at a turbine. The turbine spins a magnet inside a copper coil to make electricity. At that point about 35 percent of the energy in coal has made it into the electricity, but it hasn’t even left the plant. It has miles to go through power lines, and by the time it makes it to your house it has very little of the original energy left. An incandescent light bulb uses 3 percent of the energy that went into it.
As a group we have been talking about efficiency as a resource in itself. Much more energy is spent to turn on a light then we ever see. A major change in our energy future would come about if the system were more efficient. At home that means wrapping our hot water heaters, turning down refrigerators, and using fluorescent lights.
After today I am looking at the future of fossil fuels and feeling that they are a part of our energy system that is here to stay. Huge investments have been made into the industry, and no one seems to believe things will change soon. The people behind these companies recognize that the future will call for more regulations on carbon and mercury emissions. A third of Corette’s resources go into environmental protection, and it will only be more in the future. I am left wondering if we should continue with a fossil fuel system that is inefficient energy wise and expensive to control.
- Katy Kelly, University of Montana
Day Two | Wednesday, May 30
An unusual morning welcome came from the cowboy-hat-wearing, cigarette-smoking, friendly neighbor perched against his red pickup. He seemed awfully chipper for a dreary, drizzling morning. Maybe he found humor in our awkwardly-burdened bicycles, silly diaper-shorts, or matching butt-highlighting orange triangles. Maybe he thought we were out of our minds. Maybe we are. Maybe he was excited by the rare occasion for a social gathering –- it was a big day after all, and the cows had successfully crossed the highway earlier this morning en route to summer grazing grounds and fresh grass.
And then we biked. And it rained. And we went uphill. And there was a head wind. And Buck Mountain Coal Mine is closed anyway. And, phew, here we are, quiet and quaint Roundup, Montana, where we become watchful after a police officer’s casual warning: “Lots of meth around, you know, sticky-fingers.”
Kate wonders what I’ll write about today without industrial tours and technical jibber-jabber. “I’m not worried about it,” I assure her. I could write an entire novel about any one of the people we encountered today.
|The group riding in line, en route to a rancher’s house.|
Like Roundup-local Dwayne, who quickly responded with “Holy Smokes” upon hearing what we’re up to. Or the curious observers in the laundromat where we dropped in for a quick dry. Or the woman behind the counter of a convenient store sporting trophy buck on whitewashed walls. She knew we were crazy the moment we walked in, and we reinforced her knowledge by doing push-ups, squats, and clapping-feet dances in her store. “No more uphill,” she assured us, but my burning thighs proved how much different those miles must look from the perspective of an oil-powered vehicle.
The world certainly expands exponentially when powered by my legs. And yet, as I slowly dragged into town, I smiled to myself, seeing Roundup’s largest sign — ExxonMobil — and realizing how interconnected it all is.
Inside the Bluestar Café, the morning’s efforts settle into stiff joints, tight muscles. Hot chai burns away all my rainy-day troubles. My veins are now pumping with liquid-energy, making me contemplate a fantastical world: What if caffeine were powerful enough to be our main source of energy? What if green tea became the new coal, coffee the new oil, plantation workers the new rich and powerful…
My thoughts are interrupted by reality. It’s time for some class — a recap of our crash course on fossil fuels to clear up last minute questions on difficult technical concepts and complex political battles. I’ve gotten lucky with my first blog assignment — a day of contemplation, regrouping, and a much appreciated dinner in town.
- Sarah Rosenbloom, University of Colorado @ Boulder
Day Three | Thursday, May 31
Today was a windy, wild Wednesday. We began the day with a visit to the Northern Plans Resource Counsel (NPRC) and ended on the moonlit Charter ranch listening to meadowlarks and smelling fresh sage.
The first thing we saw walking up to the NPRC environmentally savvy building was the pulverized glass sparkling as gravel for the parking lot. Inside Steve Paulson showed us around, and pointed to the many unique building features. Here cleaning closets and products are free of that certain toxic order, and people can rest easy knowing that over 92 percent of the reconstruction waste of the building was kept from the landfill through creative uses.
The NPRC was founded by families in Montana concerned about the natural resources on their lands and the protection of their livelihoods. As we learned from Steve Charter, the organization is a huge source of inspiration. The people that make up NPRC live for social change and do not give up after a single battle is won. They have helped fight off coal development for over thirty years, and have played a major role in the protection of Montana’s resources.
A major issue that the organization is working on is coal bed methane. The organization is known for not opposing the development of fossil fuels, which Steve sees as a part of our future, but fighting for the responsible and careful way in which these fuels are developed. “With coal bed methane we’re in a natural position to make a difference,” Steve said.
The issue of coal bed methane is just as complex as other energy issues, but it can be simplified. Methane is natural gas that is trapped in water along coal seams. In order to release the gas, one must relieve pressure by pumping out water. The water is often of high salinity and the problem is, Where should the pumped out water go? If applied to crops the water dries out soil and when dumped in rivers the salt heavily impacts aquatic life. What’s more, the methane travels freely along the seams — if you tap into it in one place, you can potentially collect it from under other properties. This has resulted in a “boom” to be the first to get the methane and to do it before there are many regulations.
Montanans like Steve and Jeanne Charter, however, have been proactive in preventing the degradation that the extraction of coal bed methane can bring.
|Talking with Steve Charter about his house, ranching, Northern Plains Resource Council, and energy use.|
We were not supposed to meet the Charters, but rains prevented them from running their cattle to the Bull Mountains until Thursday, much to our joy. As we rode up their driveway after a long ride in headwinds that made us pedal down hill while getting nowhere, we were greeted by sheep dogs and it felt as if we had arrived at home.
Steve and Jeanne are the most amazing ranchers I have ever and probably will ever meet. They live in an earth-burm passive solar house built over twenty years ago. As Steve walked out to greet us he said, “Well, you can sleep on the roof if you like,” and continued to show us their seed press from India the Charters hope to use for making biodiesel.
I wish I could recap everything we heard from the Charters as we ate with them and spoke about family, ranching and coal.
The Charters carry on the history of fighting coal companies that runs in their family. In the 1950s Steve’s parents helped found the NPRC and his father refused to sell his property to the coal company. Steve likewise refused an exorbitant offer for his mineral-rich land, nearly ten times its value. “What would I do with eight billion dollars?” Steve asked as we looked at pictures of the centennial cattle run and hearing about what it means “to neighbor” — neighbor as a verb — even when people disagree. Steve’s words stick with me and always will: “What is happiness? I am where I want to be, doing what I love.” For ranchers like the Charters there is no compensation for their livelihood, from the joy that comes from raising your cattle well and valuing the land.
I have seen quite a bit of the world for someone my age, but nothing as profound as what I have experienced today. I am truly grateful to be here, and after only three days of this adventure I look forward to all that is ahead of us. I carry with me those who are supporting me, and thank Kibo Group Architecture for their generous scholarship allowing me to be here. I also have sponsorship from the Montana Renewable Energy Association, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, Students Advocates for valuing the Environment, and the Walla Walla Bicycle Barn. Thank you so much.
- Katie Pritchard, University of Montana