Climbing a gravel hill on the way to Choteau, MT (photo credit: Dave Morris)

Coming from Illinois, I am not used to hills. I look ahead of my spinning front tire as the gravel road looms in front of me. From a distance, the hill appears to be vertical, and I think to myself: there is no way I’m making it up. We are mid-way through our month-long Montana bicycle tour, leaving White Sulfur Springs, and beginning the 40-mile trek to Townsend. I shift my gears down to ease the pressure off my aching legs. 

On the first half of our trip, we met with many people who’ve dedicated their lives to the renewable energy transition. Renewable alternatives have grown enormously in the past decade, now making up over 20% of total US electricity generation. One renewable energy advocate we met, Mike Scott, has dedicated his life to fighting fossil fuels through political action, and currently works as the oil and gas coordinator for the Sierra Club. In his words, “you can’t do it all,” so finding a niche where you can make a difference is critical. Mike’s niche is fighting the oil and gas industry. He described how the current grid is optimized for fossil fuels and operated by monopolist utilities, and how many political and economic barriers are involved in shifting to renewables. In order to make this transition, the current system must be modified. 

I continue pushing up the hill. Sweat drips from my head, mixing with my overapplied sunscreen. I shift my gears down again, hoping it will make the hill any bit easier to climb. My spinning head tells me to give up as I struggle to maintain my breath. But I keep on pushing. 

At Invenergy’s Judith Gap Wind Plant, we met with one company that’s working to balance environment, people, and profits. Many of the 13 employees at Judith Gap grew up in the nearby Harlowton area. The wind farm is providing them quality local jobs and emphasizing community engagement. Judith Gap’s wind turbines are built on active public and private grazing land, allowing for minimal disruption to land use. Fighting the same monopolist utilities that Mike mentioned, Invenergy has struggled to get their energy integrated into the grid. 

Judith Gap Wind Plant (Photo Credit: Casper)

I can finally see the hill begin to level out ahead of me. Although my body may be physically burned out, I’m not yet mentally finished. With every last ounce of strength in me, I force my legs to power through the last couple yards, reaching the peak of the hill. I see the road drop on the other side. I made it! Without my assistance, my bike steadily picks up speed on the downhill. I take several long, deep breaths.

But unlike riding a bike, the energy transition is not an individual battle. Although single people can make substantial differences, shifting gears to a global renewable energy system is not a single person’s task. 

In Roundup, we met with renewable energy activist Elizabeth Wood who undoubtedly fought an uphill battle in her time. In 1976, she helped create the New Western Energy Tour, a traveling theater production, to educate the Montana public about renewable energy alternatives like wind. Although the novel idea wasn’t taken seriously at the time, she and her tour continued for nine years, using humor to introduce renewables to the public. When asked why she left her home in San Francisco and moved to Montana for the tour, she responded, “I wanted my life” and “you’ve got to have fun.” Elizabeth’s move to Montana allowed her to spend time with her husband Wilbur and the friends she made on the tour. With this community, she was able to keep climbing hills in the early fight for sustainable energy. 

Talking to Elizabeth Wood in Roundup (Photo Credit: Casper)

The energy transformation will require a focus on collective effort, not just individualism. Although it is important that we find our individual niches, transitioning to renewables will require collaboration. We have a way to go to crest the hill, but we have overcome much of the hill already. The hill is leveling off, as renewables rapidly become cheaper and more accessible. Just as it came on my bike, I believe the downhill on the other side is already visible; we just have to keep on pedaling.