The Billings Outpost

Rally, solar, beer, music

Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain College Workers install solar panels on the Bair Family Student Center at Rocky Mountain College.
By WILBUR WOOD - For The Outpost

Rarely do I drive to Billings to do only one thing. It’s about my personal carbon footprint – or in this case, my tire print.

Saturday, April 26, I made the 50-mile trip from Roundup to our regional metropolis because of two events downtown: an outdoor rally at noon to promote solutions to climate change and, that evening, a live performance of “Carmina Burana” – a “secular oratorio” by the German composer Carl Orff – at the Alberta Bair Theater.

However, these days, if I truly aspire to shrink – or at least to justify – my carbon footprint, two destinations are scarcely enough, even when I’m driving a hybrid gasoline-electric powered vehicle. Carbon footprint calculating formulae grant me an inordinate amount of credit for this, making our household look a lot better than it really is, particularly when compared to households in most places on the planet except the USA.

I didn’t even have my partner and spouse Elizabeth riding with me. She already had blown our monthly carbon footprint by flying to California to spend time with her elderly mother. So my petroleum burn this day moved just one body, not two.

Add recycling

So I loaded the trunk of our Prius with sacks of aluminum and steel cans, one sack of No. 1 and No. 2 plastic containers, and another full of slick-cover magazines, all to hand over to the new Pacific Steel & Recycling facility between the railroad tracks and the freeway south of Lockwood.

Pacific Steel & Recycling in the not too distant past was known as Pacific Hide & Fur (there’s a story in here about how industrial processing has shifted from formerly animate items such as bone, flesh, blood and fur to never-animate items like metal).

Pacific had stuck coupons on the front page of the Sunday Billings Gazette two days before Earth Day (April 22) offering 10 cents more per pound than the going price for aluminum cans, if brought in by April 30.

I brought that coupon along, even though I had not accumulated all that many cans, either aluminum or steel (which Pacific calls “tin”), since my last trip to Pacific, when they were still located at 777 Fourth Avenue N., a handy quick drop-off on our way out of town.

You get paid for aluminum and steel, not for the plastic or the magazines, but I am delighted that someone will take these last two, and wish we could recycle glass. But glass bottles and jars are too expensive for any Montana recycling business to collect and ship to markets out of (well, there’s one retail chain store in Billings that does accept glass, but I’m not going to name it since in other Montana cities they’ve stopped this practice because so many people used the service).

In communities closer to Yellowstone Park a group called Headwaters Recycling does take clean glass, but ships it only as far as their own crushing machines which turn jars and bottles into nubbins of glass with no sharp edges to become parking lots or part of the surface of paved roads.

To the rally

I spun out of Pacific’s big new complex with a few extra dollars in my pocket, thinking about the extra miles and extra petroleum to convey recyclable stuff now to Lockwood, and I arrived at the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn for a rally that was all about cutting down humanity’s fossil fuel carbon footprint, or tire print, or jet plane contrail, or smoke plume from factory, refinery or power plant.

Billings Gazette reporter Mike Ferguson and photographer Casey Page covered this event well in the next day’s paper, although their estimate of 85 people in attendance was below my count of 120.

Fully one-third of this crowd was holding up homemade signs like “Wind Power, Made in Montana” or “Have You Ever Seen a Wind Spill?” Signs and speakers alike protested pollution and blocked railroad crossings due to the increasing number of coal trains passing through towns all the way to West Coast ports, where coal is shipped to Asia; complained about profits going to giant energy corporations; advocated clean renewable energy sources and the homegrown jobs they provide.

Coal jobs vs. solar jobs

At least two men, however, held up signs that said “Coal = Jobs.” Occasionally people strolled over to engage them in polite conversation, but it was Ben Reed who, from the podium, addressed this issue specifically.

Reed owns a 27-year-old company called Winpower West, which helps people install renewable energy systems and other improvements. Primarily due to the plummeting costs of solar electric devices (a 34 percent decrease from the first quarter of 2010 to the first quarter of 2013) in 2013 alone there was a 41 percent growth in solar installations across the USA – “and that means jobs!”

Solar energy, Reed said, now employs 142,698 people across the nation. Solar jobs are growing now at 10 times the national employment growth rate.

“If you want jobs,” Reed said, “invest in renewables.”

Cleaning up our mess

Three other speakers focused less on opportunities than on dealing with costs.

Robert Merchant, a Billings pulmonologist, talked about asthma and other breathing problems as more diesel fumes and coal dust fill the air.

He said as a doctor he can prescribe medications so that people can breathe, but what we can do as a community is work together to clean up our air.

Becky Bird, representing Ward 3 on the Billings City Council, said, “It’s hard to wrap my mind around 40 to 60 coal trains passing through Billings each day” and said it was the duty of “all the players” to deal with this issue before it overwhelms us.

Renee Seacor, who heads the Environmental Club at Rocky Mountain College, said she came west to major in equestrian studies — and she still would rather be riding her horse than dealing with this — but she has switched to environmental science. She learned early in life that “just because you didn’t make the mess doesn’t mean you’re not responsible for cleaning it up.”


RMC’s new solar site

In his speech, Ben Reed had commented, “Consumers have the right to decide how our electricity is produced,” and Renee Seacor and her student group were right in the middle of a project that resulted in a solar electric installation on the student union building at Rocky Mountain College.

After the rally, Reed drove me up to RMC, where we walked around on the flat white roof of that building — flat except for the lovely 45-degree south-facing roof (“a perfect angle,” Reed said) over the high-ceilinged student lounge. That roof is now nearly all covered with 50 photovoltaic panels.

Each of the panels is 40 inches by 65 inches, with a capacity to generate 260 watts (a 51st panel is soon to be installed, to make three rows of 17 panels each). There is virtually no shading by trees, and in full sun the system’s capacity is 13 kilowatt hours.

NorthWestern Energy “net meters” the system: When the sun’s shining, the meter in effect turns backward and any excess electricity flows into NWE lines; when the sun’s not shining, the NWE system feeds electricity to the building.

Reed estimates that the system will save the College $1,800 per year — “and that’s very conservative,” he said. 

Raising the money

Reed worked with Seacor and the Environmental Club to design the project and he suggested ways to raise money through grants and donations to come up with the $65,000 price. (“It would be less now,” Reed told me, because solar prices keep coming down.)

About half of this amount was covered by a fund NorthWestern Energy administers, called the Universal System Benefits (USB) program. Ratepayers pay a tiny percentage of each monthly bill and these tiny amounts add up to allow USB to finance renewable energy installations, weatherization and other projects.

The Associated Students of RMC and Cinnabar Foundation were major contributors, the college itself contributed money, and Reed paid for the materials and the labor of his Winpower workers, but did not pay himself — another donation.

The neat thing is, whatever the college saves on electric bills will go to the RMC Environmental Club. Reed said that Renee Seacor has signed an agreement to that effect with RMC.

That visit to RMC was the fourth good reasons to drive to Billings, and it turned out the whole day was full of RMC connections.

Three members of the band at the rally, Ellen and the Old School, were singer Ellen Moak, who graduated from Rocky; her father Mark Moak, drummer and art teacher at Rocky; and guitarist Sam Hamm, music teacher at Rocky.

Later at the Alberta Bair, it was RMC’s Steven Hart listed in the program as director of the Billings Symphony Chorale.

But first: Stopping in at one of the local brewpubs, sipping a pint of porter, eating popcorn, then filling a growler with that same porter, turned out to be a fifth reason to drive to Billings that day.

Recycling. Rally. RMC solar. Fill a growler. “Carmina Burana.”

End with a blast of culture

I got to the ABT early enough for a pre-performance discussion by Doug Nagel, retired opera singer, founder of the local Rimrock Opera Company, who now directs the Montana State University Billings Chamber Singers, joined by the evening’s three soloists — soprano Christine Steyer, countertenor Paul Bork and baritone Andrew Wilkowske. They talked about “Carmina Burana” and its composer.

While Carl Orff, who was born (July 10, 1895) and died (March 29, 1982) in Munich, is still well known in Germany as a composer of “delightful educational music pieces for children,” Nagel said. “This is likely to be the only piece by Carl Orff that you’ll know.”

That is true. Elizabeth had a vinyl record of the piece when we met, and we played it often for years. Her trip to California prevented her from attending this performance.

I’d always just appreciated the music. Bombastic and alluringly sweet by turns. String instruments, sometimes played percussively, drums punctuating the flow, horns, flutes, haunting voices, soft then loud then soft again.

I now know “Carmina Burana” was based on poems and dramatic texts mostly from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, discovered in the 1800s, often bawdy, irreverent, satirical. Hence, a secular, not sacred, oratorio. Orff produced it in 1937.

He was a modern composer, influenced somewhat by Stravinsky, said Nagel, but whereas you can hum some of the melodies in “Carmina Burana” — “just try to hum something from Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring!”

The stage was filled by the Billings Symphony Orchestra, 56 players, and the Chorale, 96 men and women in four rows at the back of the stage. Midway through the performance another 10 or so members of the Billings Youth Orchestra Chorale entered to back up a solo by Christine Steyer, and stayed on stage for the remainder of an astounding performance, conductor Anne Harrigan wielding the baton.

It was the last symphony performance of the season, and won a long, enthusiastic standing ovation from a full house.

The day had been pleasant, but clouds were boiling up in the west before we entered the theater. I drove home in a rainstorm nearly as urgent as the music.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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