The technology for harnessing Montana’s wind, a virtually untapped resource, is getting bigger, better and more efficient, according to a local wind expert.
John Bacon plans to use some of this new technology to develop Montana’s windiest areas into a profitable business of providing renewable energy for his company and the neighboring farmers and ranchers.
Bacon works with the Invenergy wind development company which built the first wind farm in central Montana and is looking to expand his operation in central and north central Montana, as well as throughout the nation and world.
“We have three projects in the U.S.,” said Bacon. Invenergy is an international company and this is the first Festival of the Wind conference being held on June 22 in Harlowton, Mont., he added.
“We have projects in Colorado, Idaho and Montana for 2007. In 2006, we built 350 megawatt projects in Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa. We also have projects in Europe and Tennessee.”
The Invenergy wind farm located be-tween Judith Gap, Mont., and Harlowton was more profitable than expected and is thus about to undergo a 52.5-megawatt expansion to be constructed in 2008, said Bacon.
“Right now, we are conducting wind studies to determine the best placement of these new wind turbines,” he said.
Invenergy is also studying the wind patterns near Cut Bank, Mont., Shelby, Mont., and Conrad, Mont., to tie into a project between Montana and Alberta, Canada, which would run a line between Lethbridge, Alberta, and Great Falls, Mont., and allow Invenergy to send 180 megawatts of energy on the line and could potentially hold 1,000 megawatts of power, said Bacon. Studies in the Cut Bank area have shown winds so strong, the engineers on the case suggested building an off-shore wind turbine.
“The future of the wind technology is getting bigger,” said Bacon. “The 3.5 mega-watt wind turbines are 360 feet tall and are usually built offshore. They can withstand winds up to 125 mph Š The wind turbines near Judith Gap stand 260 feet tall and shut off in 55 mph winds.”
Commercial wind turbines are quite a bit taller than the windmills seen scattered across the Great Plains because the wind patterns are different higher in the atmosphere than closer to the ground, said Bacon. “The higher you go the more consistent the wind,” he explained. “Also, wind migrates higher at dusk.”
The technology also includes using diffusers to speed up the wind flowing through the wind turbines and increase the efficiency of the wind turbine, but Bacon said he has not seen them in action yet. The wind farm near Judith Gap has a capacity factor in the high 30s, which is the highest in the nation, and is running 97 percent of the time, said Bacon.
“The wind turbines are spaced to take advantage of the west and north winds without interference and we took to the high ground,” he said.
Global warming and carbon dioxide issues are driving the market for renewable energies such as wind energy.
“We didn’t sign up to be a base load supplier – we signed up to be a renewable energy component in NorthWestern Energy’s portfolio,” said Bacon. “Our studies have shown that a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine is equal to 1,000 acres of forest in terms of carbon dioxide emission reductions.”
However, wind energy is risky business for energy companies such as North-Western Energy to take on, according to John Campbell of NorthWestern Energy’s conservation program.
“The problem is the wind strength varies and the company has to make up for the shortfalls,” he explained. “This is called firming the resource with other energy resources such as hydro-energy. The more wind farms we have the less firming resources we have available.”
Other firming resources include gas turbines, reciprocating engines and pumped hydro-storage.
“The firming resource supply is diminishing and the cost is going up,” explained Campbell. “That cost is passed onto the customer. Eight percent of our portfolio is wind; we’re somewhat leading the pack on renewable energy when we’re not generating our own.”
NorthWestern Energy will probably pass the risk onto the renewable energy suppliers when contracts are reviewed next.
“When we go out for the next round of bids, NorthWestern Energy will probably ask the resources to provide the energy to back up or firm their renewable resources so the company doesn’t assume the risk,” said Campbell. “The firming cost, if we were forced to accept more wind energy, would bankrupt the company again without a doubt. NorthWestern Energy cannot pick up that tab.”
NorthWestern Energy does its business deals, selling and purchasing energy, from a commodity market, much like farmers and ranchers. Campbell said Montana’s energy is cheaper than in other states because of the transmission lines located within the state and NorthWestern Energy was able to lock in energy contracts a few years ago when it was selling cheaper.
Farmers and ranchers could produce their own energy with wind turbines producing less than 50 kilowatts in a net-metering contract with NorthWestern Energy where the company gives credit for the energy generated and charges for the energy used.
“The standard rebate for wind turbines of less than 50 kilowatts is $3.50 per watt and $2 per watt for solar,” said Campbell.
Those wishing to participate in one of NorthWestern Energy’s renewable energy programs might want to consider conserving energy rather than putting up a wind turbine, said Campbell.
“Conservation makes our load growth about 2 percent compared to 5 percent a year,” he said. “A lot of our load growth comes from industries that come in and go down in the state … It’s cheaper to conserve than to generate that power.”
Farmers and ranchers can obtain cost-share grants from NorthWestern Energy on projects that conserve more energy in its lifetime than the cost of the project, such as replacing old water pumps with newer, more efficient models, said Campbell.
“We evaluate the technology and program and look at the life of the measure to see the amount of savings over measure’s lifetime,” he explained. “Then, we’ll estimate how much each year the energy savings would pay for the commodity energy – that is how we determine the incentive levels for all of our programs Š An agriculture pump system runs three to four months of the year and probably doesn’t put out as much incentive because the energy savings is not as great as something that runs year-round.”
However, if the project pays for itself in energy savings within one and one-half years, it will not qualify an incentive from NorthWestern Energy.
Other ways to conserve energy include checking the insulation in one’s house to seal up any drafty areas, lighten a too tight home or switch the old lights to newer technology lights such as the T5 or T8 bulbs in sensor lights.
“They don’t take as long to come on when they sense motion and they run on a lot less energy,” said Campbell of the new lights. “Residents can take advantage of NorthWestern Energy’s conservation programs and save on their power bills Š The reality of renewable energy is the payback is 40 to 60 years, people who are doing renewable energy systems are not doing them for economic reasons – they are doing them because it is green and it feels good. Conservation has a faster payback – months versus years. We tell people to do conservation first; then, if they are still interested, do renewable energy.”
Check out the site at: http://www.montanagreenpower.com for more. information.
By Shannon Ruckman
6 July 2007