Montana could lead the way on wind energy production


David J. Laporte

The Judith Gap wind farm, part of what makes Montana a world-class wind resource.

First the television cameramen shuffle in. Then Gov. Steve Bullock, flanked by a couple of aides at the door, steps toward the stage.

We’re in a conference room at Montana State University in Bozeman, and this is a moment that many at Wednesday’s Montana Wind Energy Forum have been waiting for, especially now that it’s the only thing between them and lunch.

Bullock knows he’s talking to a pro-renewable energy crowd, and he starts by hammering on the reality of human-caused climate change. But mostly he’s upbeat as talks about embracing wind and other renewable energy technologies.

This forum has brought together wind farm developers, utility managers, energy policy wonks and officials from the Environmental Protection Agency. Bullock’s speech resonates with the message that several of them have already flashed across the screen: Montana is windy.

By some estimates, Montana— specially in its central and eastern parts—has the most wind energy potential of any western state. “This is a world-class resource,” said Tom Darin, a policy director for the American Wind Energy Association, which hosted the forum.

Yet only a tiny fraction of that resource—perhaps 1 percent—has been developed. Reasons include a regional electric grid traditionally geared around hydro and coal, limited access to electricity markets outside the state, and a lack of policies to drive renewable energy development.

But all those things are now in flux.

“There’s no question that the electricity system in the West is changing and moving toward more renewables,” Jeff Fox, a policy director for advocacy group Renewable Northwest, tells me. “The question is whether Montana can get its share in that transition.”

Take changing policies, for example. In August, the Environmental Protection Agency released its final Clean Power Plan—the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s effort to curb human-caused climate change. The plan mandates that Montana reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 47 percent by 2030—nearly the strictest requirement of any state. (Note: For a clarification of this point, please go to the comment section below.)

“We really are at a historic place,” said EPA regional administrator Shaun McGrath as he discussed the plan. “We have a chance, here in this country, to lead on greenhouse gas emissions in a way that has never been done before.”

Montana could potentially satisfy many, if not all, of the required cuts by replacing coal-fired power with wind power, according to Michael Milligan, who spoke as an analyst from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And because the plan allows states to sell emissions credits among themselves, Montana could profit if it developed more wind than it needs for compliance.


Marshall Swearingen

EPA regional administrator Shaun McGrath steps outside after discussing the Clean Power Plan, which requires that Montana cut its carbon emissions from power plants by 47 percent before 2030.

There are challenges, of course. I’ve written for Last Best News about how even relatively small amounts of volatile wind power on Montana’s grid—which must constantly balance electricity production and electricity use—have caused headaches for utilities, creating a demand for projects like the pumped-storage hydro reservoirs at Gordon Butte.

But much of the problem lies in how the grid operates across multiple states. Even though transmission lines connect the entire West, most utilities balance their energy production in isolation. That means there’s no readily available, short-term market for selling wind power that isn’t needed in Montana, for instance.

Panelists commented on how that’s beginning to change. In California—which is considering a policy that would require the state to get 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030—utilities are forming partnerships that allow energy to be more easily transferred. Similar discussions are underway in the Pacific Northwest and Montana.

What this means for Montana is that wind energy producers could soon export wind power in much the same way that the state’s farmers export wheat. And California’s hunger for renewable energy could become a major driver for wind development in Montana and other states.


Marshall Swearingen

Montana Environmental Information Center’s Anne Hedges thinks the possible closure of all or part of the Colstrip power plant could open an opportunity for using those transmission lines for wind power.

Just as farmers needing silos and rail cars to move their goods to market, though, wind energy producers need transmission lines. And the lack of those lines is a final, and somewhat daunting, challenge for wind advocates, because building those lines requires hefty up-front investment and extensive permitting.

The television cameramen shuffling out of the conference room will miss most of this. Who can blame them—it’s wonky stuff, hard to boil down to talking points. But it all converges on a real and important possibility that could mean a major turning point in Montana’s energy economy.

The Clean Power Plan could easily pressure the closing of the Colstrip coal-fired power plant—at least its older half. That would free up transmission capacity on the power line that connects the plant with utilities on the West Coast.

“What are we going to do with those transmission lines?” asked Anne Hedges, with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “What are we going to replace that power with?”

The question was mostly rhetorical because the preferred answer was obvious: wind from Eastern Montana, bound for new, out-of-state markets.

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