The strong winds that blow across the Northern Plains have been chased over the past two years by a spate of politicians and entrepreneurs eager to promote wind as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Yet political will, tax breaks and a seemingly endless supply have not been enough to guarantee developers can turn wind into watts. As a result, one of the largest wind farms ever proposed in the United States has been shelved after the Montana project ran into opposition from an unlikely source – environmentalists.
“Montana has a great wind resource, one of the best in the country. And the governor of Montana is an outspoken proponent of wind,” said Gary Evans, chief executive of GreenHunter Energy, Inc. “But you can talk about this all you want. Business goes the place it’s easiest to do business.”
GreenHunter Energy’s proposed 500-megawatt wind farm north of Glasgow, near the Canadian border, stirred a backlash this year from environmentalists worried the 400-foot turbines would loom over an adjacent wilderness area. Unwilling to scale back, the Texas company will take the $200 to $500 million it planned to invest in the 20,000-acre Valley County site and sink it into another wind project, most likely in California.
GreenHunter has also pulled back on three other Montana wind projects, totaling 372 megawatts, because of a capacity shortage on the transmission lines needed to carry the power. Construction of new lines has stirred opposition from environmentalists and landowners.
The company’s troubles illustrate that large renewable energy projects – benefits notwithstanding – have yet to gain automatic acceptance from groups with a history of opposing coal plants, dams and other facilities that change the landscape. On a broader level, it reflects the complications facing policy makers who see wind as a means to curb global warming and reduce oil dependence.
“We’re still fighting a war in Iraq and people who are honest about it will admit we’re there over oil,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who helped craft Montana’s renewable energy policies as a state senator.
“We need to figure out a way to make these projects work. Either that or we all start riding bicycles,” he said.
Global investments in renewable energies soared 300 percent in the last three years to a projected $85 billion in 2007. About 40 percent of investments last year went into wind projects, with the United States leading all other countries, according to a United Nations report.
Yet the UN also found cash commitments were outpacing actual construction. That’s in part because demand for new turbines has outstripped supply.
In the United States, developers in rural states including Montana also face power line constraints. Those can leave prospective wind farms with no way to deliver their energy, said Larry Flowers of the National Wind Technology Center in Boulder, Colo.
“You have to have enough transmission (capacity) to justify those big projects,” he said, adding Montana’s steady breezes could produce more wind power than any other place in the country.
More than 20 states enacted laws over the last decade to spur wind development. Montana mandated utilities get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015. This year, the state added tax breaks for transmission lines that carry renewable energy.
State officials said those measures attracted proposals for more than 2,000 megawatts of wind power, including the four GreenHunter Projects. That’s enough to power 600,000 to 1 million homes – more than in all of Montana.
“By 2015, 30,000 megawatts of new power will be needed in the western United States. We want to be able to provide for that with the energy we create in Montana,” said Tom Kaiserski with the state Department of Commerce.
Montana ranks 15th nationwide for wind power with 147 megawatts on line – a fraction of the 5,000 megawatts the state could produce by 2030 under favorable conditions, according to Flowers.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s economic development chief downplayed the implications of GreenHunter’s decision. Evan Barrett described false starts as inevitable in an industry expanding by 25 percent annually.
Before suspending the Valley County proposal, GreenHunter had attempted to appease environmentalists by scaling back the project to 170 megawatts. Evans said the company later decided that was not financially viable.
With GreenHunter’s projects delayed indefinitely, the most promising wind prospect in Montana is a 300-megawatt project near Shelby, to be built with a new transmission line from Montana to Canada.
The line, known as the Montana Alberta Tie Line, has also drawn opposition from environmentalists worried it could transport electricity from greenhouse gas-producing coal plants.
“The overwhelming share of megawatts being proposed right now is coal-based, it’s not wind. And we haven’t yet found a filter for clean power,” said Patrick Judge with the Montana Environmental Information Center.
Judge said a review of Montana’s new and pending power plants showed more than 5,500 megawatts from coal – almost three times the state’s tally for proposed wind farms.
Several of the coal projects face their own obstacles that could block construction. Kaiserski said even if they were built, blocking transmission lines because of coal would be “throwing the baby out with the bath water” – hobbling the transition toward more wind.
Will Patrick with the Wilderness Society, one of the groups that fought GreenHunter in Glasgow, acknowledged the paradox of environmental groups standing in the way of renewable energy. He said his group wanted to shift the wind farm to another site – not run it out of the state.
Evans with GreenHunter said the Valley County location was crucial: sparsely populated with exceptional winds.
With fewer than two people per square mile and local support, he said the wind farm seemed an ideal mix of economic development and sustainable energy production.
“If you have opposition in Valley County, I don’t know how you could build one anywhere,” he said.
By Matthew Brown
Associated Press Writer
23 September 2007
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