Across southwest Montana, companies plan to ramp up the region’s wind industry It hasn’t been a breeze
On Thursday, the wind was blowing in the Mission Creek drainage, a picturesque draw just east of Livingston.
Tall prairie grass quivered and a solitary windmill churned at a moderate clip.
It tends to be windy in the area, as air rises and falls along the towering Absaroka Mountains.
The wind blows so regularly, in fact, that a Jackson Hole, Wyo., company is looking into whether it can be harnessed and turned into electricity. Sagebrush Energy is proposing planting eight to 11 90-foot-tall 90-meter-tall wind turbines on a bench of land in the Absaroka foothills.
According to the company, the wind farm would produce enough electricity for about 7,000 Montana homes.
Meanwhile, west of Bozeman, NorthWestern Energy is pitching a 500-kilovolt transmission line that would run from Townsend, through the Boulder, Jefferson and Big Hole valleys, then out of Montana to other mountain states.
The utility says the Mountain States Transmission Intertie, or MSTI, will be a boon for Montana’s wind farmers, giving them access to markets across the West thirsty for the carbon-free juice.
But if these projects represent the coming of a long-anticipated wind industry in southwest Montana, they are hardly being received with the expected cheers.
Instead, these projects, and others like them, are making foes of people who have advocated wind development for decades, suggesting that the debate over Montana’s energy future will not simply be coal versus wind.
A concerned advocate
“I’ve advocated wind for 26 years, spoken on behalf of wind. I put up the first wind turbine in Montana,” said Gordon “Corky” Brittan, a Montana State University professor who lives on Mission Creek Road and opposes the wind farm proposed by Sagebrush Energy.
The turbine he and his wife built still stands on a hill behind their house and produces electricity.
Still, Brittan and his wife Vanessa are part of the Friends of Mission Creek, a group organized to oppose the Mission Creek wind farm.
Brittan said he is not convinced Sagebrush has studied the impacts its project would have on wildlife, particularly golden eagles, which have nested in the area since the 1960s. And, he said he is worried that Sagebrush has never completed a wind project since it was founded in 2006.
But, Brittan acknowledged his opposition might strike some as hypocrisy, and said it came with some consternation.
“This has been very difficult for me,” he said.
Playing the wind card
Several times during an interview Friday, Public Service Commissioner John Vincent said he wanted to make one point very clear: He supports wind power.
“But I don’t think all wind power and all wind-power transmission is created equal,” he said.
Vincent was outlining his opposition to MSTI, commonly referred to as “Misty,” which NorthWestern Energy has argued is vital to getting Montana’s wind energy to markets.
“One of the cleanest fuel sources is located in abundance right here in our own back yard,” according to a project description on NorthWestern’s website. “That’s why major wind developers are serious about marketing Montana-generated wind power throughout the West. However, they can’t sell it unless they have a way to deliver it. That’s where we come in.”
But Vincent said the utility exaggerates the line’s connection to wind power in the hopes that Montana’s excitement for wind will translate into excitement for MSTI. When the wind doesn’t blow, he said, it will be coal and natural-gas power running south of Montana’s border.
By raising the prospect of wind development, he argued, NorthWestern is trying to sell Montanans on a huge transmission line that will run through “essentially pristine” river valleys in order to ship energy out of the state.
“I think wind has become political cover for Montana’s energy policy, which is to burn coal,” he said.
Claudia Rapkoch, spokeswoman for the utility, insists MSTI is necessary for development of a wind energy industry. She said the line is meant to accommodate new energy projects in Montana, the majority of which are wind projects.
“We have to have new transmission lines if we are going to build new wind farms,” she said. “That’s the only way we’re going to get large-scale wind farms.”
Whether the lines are worth it, she said, “is a question Montana has to ask itself.”
‘You can see it’
To be clear, none of the industry representatives interviewed for this story suggested that wind power, or the transmission of it, should be built at any environmental cost.
Ben Ellis, with Sagebrush Energy, said his company is still studying migration patterns of birds and other environmental impacts of the wind project, which is in “preliminary stages of development.”
But Ellis noted that wind turbines have to go up somewhere to change how Montana gets its energy.
“Wind has environmental benefits when you look at the profile of energy development, especially with Montana and all of its coal,” he said.
Renewable energy “reflects a value of the community,” he said. “You can see it, rather than displacing it on someone else and the environment at large.”
For now, public officials seem to see the benefits of wind power trumping any negative effects it has, said one opponent of the Mission Creek wind farm.
“Our biggest barrier in even having a dialogue with community members and county planners and commissions has been hearing, ‘Wind is good, wind is green, wind is pretty from a distance,” Elizabeth Scholl said. “No one is looking at the facts of the infrastructure that needs to go in.
“Yes, wind is good. Yes, we want wind as an alternative energy. But it needs to be in the right place.”
Brittan first got interested in energy policy when he spoke up against a new coal-fired power plant in Colstrip, in the 1970s. It was then that he thought there had to be another way to produce electricity and built the wind turbine.
Wind power has come a long way in the 26 years since he and his wife built the turbine. And he has come out in favor of the MSTI line, saying it will benefit wind producers.
But he acknowledged that as Montana gets more serious about wind, implementing it will come with plenty of fights.
“It’s much easier to be for green energy than it is to be for a particular technology or a particular project,” he said.
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