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 –


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