House and Senate Democrats proposed changes to state electricity laws Tuesday that they said are needed to jump-start several wind farm projects.
The bill by Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, would allow electricity cooperatives to own wind turbines and other energy equipment.
Current law limits co-ops to buying and supplying power.
Wanzenried’s measure is aimed at helping the Billings-based Green Electricity Buying Cooperative and others move forward with projects financed through a new bonding program Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., wrote into the 2005 energy bill.
Montana received $72 million under the program for 34 wind power projects planned by various cities, counties and electric co-ops in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state. A new round of funding is expected to be awarded soon.
The co-ops need ownership rights of the wind turbines and other involved equipment to use as collateral to back the projects in what’s known as asset-based financing, Wanzenried said.
“We don’t have any collateral if we can’t own the windmills,” said Russ Doty, executive director of the Green Electricity Buying Cooperative.
If the proposed legislation fails, Doty’s co-op and others like it would have to forfeit the bonding authority they received under the federal program.
GEBC received $31.7 million for two wind farms – one in Yellowstone County northwest of Billings and the second near Fort Peck in McCone County. Each would produce up to 10 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 3,000 homes each, and could be online in about two years, Doty said.
Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative, also based in Billings, received $12 million from the program for a proposed wind project near Great Falls. That project is expected to produce up to six megawatts of electricity.
Wanzenried and other supporters touted the proposed legislation as a way to revive the economies of the state’s smaller communities and involve Montanans in clean energy.
“If we really want to do something about energy independence, this is a beginning,” Wanzenried said.
The chairman of the House committee on energy issues, Roundup Republican Alan Olson, called the idea a good one – but said it was fraught with unresolved issues. For example, he said, the energy generated by the wind farms would have to go through NorthWestern Energy lines and it’s unclear who would pay for upgrades to handle the extra load.
“We’ve got some real issues with transmission infrastructure in Montana,” Olson said.
Wind power is also intermittent, he said, and it’s not clear where wind energy consumers would get their power during peak load periods.
Initially, wind power would likely cost co-op members more money, but over time they should pay less as the co-op pays off the projects and returns profits to its membership. In Colorado, Xcel Energy customers using wind power are paying less then regular Xcel customers because of rising gas and oil prices, Doty said.
“The price for wind stays the same,” he said.
The bill is Senate Bill 337.
By Sarah Cooke, Associated Press Writer – 01/24/2007
AP Writer Matt Gouras contributed to this report.
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