For all the talk about wind power in Montana, you’d think the towering, white turbines would be sprouting like sagebrush across the prairie.
The numbers, however, tell a slightly different story.
Montana’s handful of wind farms can generate enough electricity to power about 50,000 homes, or about 145 megawatts. Most of that capacity is one project, the Judith Gap wind farm.
That total isn’t bad, considering Montana’s population. But most states in the Northwest and the northern plains have more.
North Dakota generates slightly more wind electricity than Montana; Wyoming has a maximum wind generation capacity twice as big as Montana’s, with 288 megawatts. Washington, Min-nesota and Iowa are approaching 1,000 megawatts each. Most of these states also have major wind farms under construction, while Montana has only one project of any size being built, near Baker.
Some boosters of wind power insist Montana is not lagging, saying it’s on the cusp of a boom in new projects, many of which are on the drawing board.
“I think Montana will share in the significant growth that we see happening in the region,” says Ann Gravatt, policy director for Renewable Northwest Project in Portland, Ore., a promoter of alternative energy. “I have every faith that Montana’s resources will be developed.”
But developers and other wind power supporters say it still faces many obstacles in Montana, both physical and political. If Montana is serious about wind power, those problems must be addressed, they say.
“We’ve got a good wind resource, but we’ve got to make it happen,” says Van Jamison, a wind developer in Helena. “We don’t have a very clear notion of where we want to go.”
These obstacles include:
• A lack of transmission lines to move large amounts of wind-produced power (or any power) from Montana to major urban markets in the West and Southwest.
• A shortage of “firming power,” which must be purchased from other electricity generators to fill in the gaps when the wind doesn’t blow and produce power.
• A perceived reluctance on the part of NorthWestern and electric co-ops when it comes to buying and encouraging more wind power. A company-backed bill passed by the 2007 Legislature bars small wind-power projects from wooing away NorthWestern customers, and co-ops are exempt from a law requiring utilities to buy more renewable power, such as wind.
• Wind power as a political football. As Gov. Brian Schweitzer and fellow Democrats have made wind power their cause, Republicans have often resisted it, saying it’s too costly for consumers.
Some developers also say the Schweitzer administration needs to take more aggressive, concrete steps to overcome the obstacles facing wind.
The governor insists he is doing just that, pushing incentives for wind power and transmission lines, such as power line tax credits passed by the 2007 Legislature and “renewable resource” requirements passed by the 2005 Legislature.
“We weren’t even at the starting gate (when I became governor),” he says. “At least I got us to the starting gate. We have a lot of projects that are in the pipeline.”
When it comes to wind power development in Montana, there are two tiers of projects, each with its own set of hurdles: the large wind farm and the smaller project.
Big projects, such as 100 megawatts are more, likely must sell to out-of-state markets. But they need transmission lines to move that power.
This summer, the Schweitzer administration, with $330,000 in annual funding approved by the Legislature, opened a new Commerce Department division whose job is to promote new transmission lines.
Yet Schweitzer has resisted the idea of a transmission “authority,” which exists in several neighboring states. Wyoming’s authority, for example, has more power to help finance new transmission lines for new power projects, and has done so.
Schweitzer says he doesn’t think government should be investing in power lines, and that it’s up to the private sector.
Smaller wind power projects, however, pretty much have to sell to the local utility – and even the bigger boys would prefer to sell their power locally, if possible.
In Montana, that generally means selling to NorthWestern Energy, which serves 330,000 customers; and rural electric co-ops, which serve half the state.
Small producers in Montana have been feuding for years with NorthWestern and the state Public Service Commission over enforcement of a federal and state law that requires utilities to buy renewable power, such as wind, from small projects.
Despite four years of wrangling and an apparent end to the case last year, price and contract details are still unresolved, and the producers are growing weary of the legal battle.
Dave Healow, who has developed several small wind power projects near Harlowton, believes NorthWestern could easily buy the power from more small projects and incorporate it into its system, but prefers not to – and the PSC won’t make NorthWestern do it on reasonable terms.
“It should be as easy to generate and hook up and sell electrical power in Montana as it is to buy it,” he says. “But the company has instituted a process that makes it very, very difficult.”
He also wonders why the Schweitzer administration hasn’t done anything to help small producers win their case: “The silence (from the governor’s office) is deafening,” Healow says.
Schweitzer says he doesn’t think his office should intervene in cases before the PSC, because he may not be seen as a welcome influence.
Chris Moore, whose wind power company Navitas Energy of Minneapolis has won several rounds of a lawsuit against NorthWestern and the PSC involving enforcement of the law, is still without a contract. He says utilities in other states have found ways to overcome the problems NorthWestern says prevent it from buying power from multiple wind-power projects.
John Hines, director of energy supply planning for NorthWestern, says before the company buys more wind, it wants to be sure it has the right mix of power to offset gaps when the wind doesn’t blow.
Right now, it’s expensive and difficult to buy “firming power,” which is needed to complement intermittent wind power – especially when NorthWestern has no power generating plants of its own, Hines says.
The company is examining whether it can build or invest in a natural gas-fired plant that would provide that power, and should decide by next year, he says.
“It’s not a question of whether we should have (wind power) or not,” he says. “It’s what’s the best way to acquire it? Is it better to have (it) in a more central wind plant? Or more dispersed?”
Hines notes that state law requires NorthWestern to acquire at least 15 percent of its power from renewable resources, like wind, by 2015, and 10 percent by 2010. The Judith Gap project and a few other small projects put the company at about 8 percent now, and Hines says meeting the higher thresholds likely will mean buying more wind power.
“I think we’re at the forefront as far as having renewables be part of our portfolio,” he says. “I expect Montana to continue to develop wind resources.”
Schweitzer also points to the 2005 law requiring utilities to buy a percentage of renewable-resource power, calling it a catalyst for wind power development.
Critics said forcing wind power on consumers would be too expensive, but rising market prices for electricity and other factors are proving that wrong, he says.
Schweitzer, a big backer of the law, notes that it passed the Legislature only because three Republicans in the 50-50 House decided to vote against the party line and support it. Even then, the version that passed was “watered down” by opponents, Schweitzer says, exempting electric co-ops.
Earlier this summer, Schweitzer gave the keynote in Los Angeles at the annual conference of the American Wind Energy Association.
Jamison, the wind power developer from Helena, says the speech was well-received, and that “there are wind guys crawling all over this state because of that.”
Yet wind, and the desire to harness it for power, is not unique to Montana and never will be, he says.
“What we’re trying to sell is quite common,” Jamison says. “We’re going to have to scratch and claw and work like committed soldiers to get any sort of development in Montana at all.”
By Mike Dennison
Gazette State Bureau
23 September 2007
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