Community partners propose repurposing mine lands to build green energy projects in Butte


Montana Technological University, Montana Resources, and Butte-Silver Bow County have passed the first hurdle in pursuing a Department of Energy grant that would deliver 63 megawatts of power to the university, the Montana Resources’ Continental Mine, and buildings within the Butte community via solar power.

In addition to providing clean energy, the project would be used as an example of how abandoned and operating mine lands can be repurposed for green energy development. It will also provide educational opportunities to students at Montana Tech, Highlands College, and Butte area k-12 schools.

Montana Tech Chancellor Les Cook explained that “Montana Tech is taking the lead on implementing clean energy solutions in a manner that benefits both the university and the community,” a fact that is demonstrated by Tech students already studying solar viability in Butte.

“A senior design team studied solar power needs at Montana Tech in the spring of 2023, and we are using some of their information in the preliminary design,” said Dr. Robin Bullock, interim director of the Center for Environmental Remediation and Assessment at Montana Tech. “We also plan to include students in developing additional designs on infrastructure needs, technology demonstrations, research on energy storage, as well as opportunities for future curriculum and training at Highlands College for renewable energy installation and maintenance certifications.”

The project also calls for 27.5 megawatts of battery storage, but there’s a challenge. Butte’s temperatures can reach 50 degrees below zero in the winter. This extreme cold can zap traditional batteries and decrease overall efficiency. Designers are thinking out of the box on ways to store energy, including using pumped hydro that leverages an existing water circulation loop at the mine.

“This initiative is exemplary of Tech faculty creating opportunities to put engineering solutions into practice,” Vice Chancellor for Research and Dean of the Graduate School Angela Lueking said. “The project will leverage Butte’s geography, technology capabilities, community partners, and mining heritage.”

While the project will not replace the entire energy demands for the partners, it will provide a portion of the electricity needs for each participating entity. Montana Resources produces around 100 tons per day of copper, a mineral that is one of the most essential for the world’s transition to a low-carbon future.

“Montana Resources is pleased to support Montana Tech and Butte-Silver Bow in this endeavor,” Montana Resources President Jack Standa said. “Since 1986, we have partnered with Tech and BSB to ensure the Mining City safely provides copper that the world demands while also looking for opportunities to create a sustainable mining future.”

“Butte and the surrounding area are one of the largest superfund sites in the nation, and we have an abundance of abandoned mining lands,” Butte-Silver Bow Executive J.P. Gallagher said. “Butte-Silver Bow and its strategic partners realize the value of developing these lands into their most beneficial use both environmentally and economically for our community. Building a solar power grid on this land to supplement power for Montana Resources Continental Mine, Montana Tech, and other buildings will reduce our carbon footprint, alleviate the burden of future infrastructure needs, and incentivize others to do the same through rebate programs. The increased green energy that we utilize, the more resilient and healthier our community becomes now and for future generations.”

Butte-Silver Bow is currently working with The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) on a project called Resilient Butte.

“There’s a growing recognition of the challenges we face in western Montana due to a rapidly warming planet, but there are also great opportunities for Butte to participate in the transition to a clean energy economy,” said Steve Thompson, Executive Director of NCAT. “Through the Resilient Butte project, we are developing a community blueprint for climate solutions that boost local business development, grow green energy, and protect our community from the impacts of a changing climate. This partnership with the Department of Energy would be a game-changer for Butte.”

This project is the latest partnership between the university, Montana Resources, and the Butte-Silver Bow community. Montana Tech and Montana Resources are working together to explore the potential for extracting critical minerals and rare earth elements from mining waste at the Berkeley Pit. Montana Resources, in conjunction with the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, also funds the Rolin Erickson Montana Resources Opportunity Scholarship, which offers full-ride scholarships to Butte students who attend Montana Tech.

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