State’s Future is Blowin’ in the Wind

Commercial wind power in Montana dates back to the early 1980s, when a half dozen windmills were erected south of Livingston. Although windmills have been used to pump water and generate power on Montana farms and ranches for decades, the Livingston windmills were part of a demonstration project designed to test the feasibility of commercial wind power in Montana. Unfortunately, those early windmills, plagued by weak propeller blades and exploding turbines, soon fell victim to the relentless winds of the upper Yellowstone Valley.
Windmill technology has advanced considerably since then, and the state’s first industrial wind farm opened at Judith Gap in 2005. This operation, which is now slated for expansion, produces 135-megawatts (MW) of electricity. Montana ranks fifth among the states in potential wind energy production, but only 18th in actual generating capacity. However, wind generation in the state nearly doubled last year, and similar growth is expected in 2009. Currently the state’s wind turbines generate 271 MW, enough to power approximately 75,000 homes.
Wind energy in America has enjoyed a 25% annual growth rate over the past five years, and within 20 years could provide as much as one-fifth of the country’s electricity. The US Department of Energy predicts that Montana alone may produce 10,000 MW of wind energy by 2035, which would result in an annual reduction of almost 30 million tons of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere.
Approximately 17 million acres (one-fifth of the state) are suitable for wind development, with most of this land located east of the Continental Divide. The highest wind speeds are often found near relatively pristine areas like the Rocky Mountain Front and the Absaroka, Beartooth and Crazy Mountains, but millions of acres of suitable land lie in less-sensitive areas as well.
There are several downsides to wind farms. They are noisy, detract from the Treasure State’s scenery, and are often deadly to migratory birds and bats. The numerous roads needed for large wind farms fragment wildlife habitat, although this can be minimized by siting wind farms on the 9 million acres of suitable cropland in the state. Another disadvantage of wind is that no electricity is produced when the wind doesn’t blow, so dams or conventional coal and gas plants are needed to “firm up” the unpredictable load.
An Irish company thinks they have found a partial solution to this problem. Gaelectric is interested in building several large-scale wind farms in Montana, and is also planning to test a Compressed-Air Energy Storage system (CAES) in the state. CAES is a method of storing energy by using electricity to compress air, which is then stored in underground caverns until needed, when it is converted back into electricity.
Gaelectric is not the only foreign company interested in Montana’s wind. Last fall a Spanish company named NaturEner finished construction of 71 wind turbines at the Glacier Wind Project southeast of Cut Bank, the first phase of a planned 210-megawatt wind farm, and a German company has announced plans to break ground this spring on a plant to manufacture wind turbines in Butte.
A number of proposed large-scale wind developments got a boost last fall when a new 214-mile-long power-line between Great Falls and Lethbridge received final approval. Gov. Brian Scheweitzer has predicted that this power-line could spur construction of an additional 600 MW of wind-power, and an infusion of nearly $1 billion into the Montana economy.
Every 100 MW of new wind generation supports up to 500 jobs, and both the Wind Applications Center (WAC) at Montana State University and the Great Falls College of Technology are developing programs to train technicians and engineers. The WAC has already installed a small wind turbine on the MSU campus, and plans to install windmills at schools in Livingston, Stanford, Cascade, and Fairfield as part of a national pilot program called Wind for Schools.
By next year Montana utilities will be required to obtain 10% of their total energy production from renewable energy, up from the current 5%. Montana also has specific tax breaks for installing wind turbines, and small generators are exempted from property taxes for 5 years. However, local wind producers recently suffered a setback when a House committee in the state legislature killed HB 491, a bill that would have required Northwestern Energy to buy wind-power from small wind farms.
Large-scale commercial wind farms, which didn’t exist in Montana five years ago, face a brighter future however, and it appears they will play an increasingly important part of the state’s economy for many years to come.


Montana wind farms –

Montana Wind Working Group –

Wind powering America (US Dept. of Energy) –

American Wind Energy Association –

Energy Conservation Tax Credits –

Montana Wind Action Center –

Wind for Schools Program –


Tax credits and rebates encourage conservation

Whether or not you were farsighted enough to invest in energy conservation during the past year, there may be some good news come tax time. Both the Federal government and Montana state offer homeowners tax breaks for improving energy efficiency. In addition, many utility companies offer rebates for conservation. Homeowners who have taken a deduction on their Federal tax credits in year’s past may find there are a few changes since last year. And if you haven’t yet upgraded the efficiency of your home, don’t despair. The 2009 tax year comes with new tax breaks.
Federal tax credits can help homeowners who have installed solar panels or fuel cells during the past year. The credits are applied 30% of the cost, although there are caps on the total amount applicable for a credit. There are still Federal tax credits for the installation of solar, wind, and fuel cell systems. There are deductions allowed for a variety of alternative fuel vehicles, including a new tax credit for plug-in electric hybrid cars, which will underwrite up to $7,500 of the purchase price.
In previous years homeowners could also get Federal tax credits for improving the energy efficiency of their homes, including such things as upgrading windows and doors, purchasing more energy efficient furnaces and air conditioners, and adding insulation to roofs, walls, and water heaters. This tax credit covered 10% of the purchase price for these improvements, but expired at the end of 2007, so any improvements made during the 2008 tax year do not qualify. The good news is that the tax credits have been renewed for 2009, now may be a good time to consider upgrading.
The state of Montana offers homeowners a variety of tax breaks for undertaking a wide variety of energy conservation projects. The Montana Dept of Public Health & Human Services administers the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP), which provides help with utility bills and weatherization costs to both homeowners and renters. In order to qualify for this program, your income should be less than 175% of the Federal poverty level. A family of 4 making less than $37,100 qualifies for the program.

The state of Montana now offers a 25% credit to promote a wide variety of energy improvements, including new doors, windows, insulation, weatherstripping, caulking, water heaters and furnaces. A couple who own their home jointly can receive up to $1,000 in rebates under this program. To qualify you will need to complete Form ENRG-C.
A similar tax credit is also available for installing alternative energy systems such as pellet stoves, wind and solar systems, and others. Form ENRG-B. Businesses can qualify for credits related to residential installation of geothermal

Various utility companies have programs to help conserve energy. Northwestern Energy’s e-plus program offers rebates for everything from purchasing compact fluorescent light bulbs to purchasing programmable thermostats. They also offer rebates for the purchase of Energy Star rated appliances and conversion of electric furnaces to gas-fired. Also new home rebate, insulation, efficient water measures.

Montana Dakota Utilities has several different incentive programs that promote installation of programmable thermostats, efficient Energy Star gas furnaces, commercial lighting programs, Their electrical incentive program helps defray the cost of replacing an inefficient air-conditioner with an Energy Star one. They also have a commercial lighting incentive that assists commercial establishments install more efficient lighting.

The Montana Electrical Cooperative Association (MECA) supports Energy Share of Montana, a non-profit organization that raises donations to help pay power bills for low-income homeowners and renters. Much of the funding for this program comes from the Universal Systems Benefit (USB) program, which distributes funds contributed by electrical cooperatives, utility companies, mining and petroleum companies, and large users of electricity.