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Deflating an argument for wind energy

On Dec. 24, The Montana Standard printed an editorial by Rep. Mitch Tropila (Great Falls) entitled “Clean Energy Development Is Great for Montana” (4A). Tropila claimed that “renewable energy in Montana is responsible for creating over 1,300 construction jobs, nearly 100 permanent jobs, and generating over $6 million in tax revenues. … Clean energy is not just good for the environment; it’s good for the economy.”

I don’t know the source of Rep. Tropila’s statistical information, but it is questionable. This past year, the Legislative Energy and Telecom Interim Committee (ETIC) examined the impact of Montana’s Renewable Portfolio Standard law (RPS law) on Montana and came up with vastly different numbers. According to the ETIC report, renewable energy created 482 construction jobs, about half the number cited by Tropila. Second, construction jobs are short term in nature. The Spion Kop Project constructed for NorthWestern Energy is a case in point. At the peak of construction, 100 workers were on site, but the project itself took 26,000 construction man hours of labor to complete. That translates into 100 workers working for six and one-half weeks, or 12 ½ employees for one year.

The ETIC report also found that the RPS law created 26.5 permanent full-time jobs, or 2.65 jobs per year since the RPS was enacted. At that rate of job creation, it will take 290 years, or until 2304, for renewable energy development to replace the existing 770 jobs at Colstrip and the adjacent Rosebud coal mine.

On the tax side of the equation, taxes generated by wind farms are only 25 percent of what a comparable investment in a coal plant or hydroelectric facility would generate. Property taxes for wind farms are assessed at 1.5 percent of market value versus 6 percent for coal and hydro.

Later in his op-ed, Rep. Tropila claimed that wind power is cheaper than coal. That is not true if one counts all of the costs utility customers must pay to have wind on the system, and Tropila’s numbers exclude those costs. Wind is both an intermittent and unstable resource that requires backup generating capacity to keep the transmission grid stable. That backup service is called “wind integration;” it’s expensive, and it’s largely paid for by NorthWestern customers, not the owners of wind farms. In 2013, wind integration costs and several small renewable energy fees added $31.38 per megawatt hour (MWH) to the cost of wind, raising the total customer cost of wind to $70.43/MWH, or about $8.00/MWH more than coal. Small-scale wind projects, many of which are located in the Musselshell Valley, are even more expensive with a total customer cost of $117.34/MWH.That’s a far cry from the $32-$33/MWH cited by Rep. Tropila. By way of comparison, the current electricity supply rate for NorthWestern customers is $67.05/MWH.

The proponents of wind energy hold wind out as a viable, clean alternative to coal plants. It’s not. Wind energy cannot be scheduled with any form of reliability. Only Mother Nature knows when or how much the wind will blow. Without the capacity to accurately schedule wind, a utility cannot significantly reduce operations at thermal generating stations like Colstrip. Thus, wind does little to reduce emissions from coal plants.

John S. Fitzpatrick is the executive director for governmental affairs at NorthWestern Energy.