Montana hopes to generate interest in wind with conference in Big Sky

By Taylor Anderson Big Sky Weekly staff writer

Alternative energy production in Montana has yet to catch wind. But that’s not to say the state isn’t breaking some sort of ground in the matter.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced in early September that a Western Wind Transmission Leadership Summit will be held at Big Sky Resort Sept. 25-28, an attempt at generating interest and feasibility to connecting Montana’s wind farms to electricity grids as it struggles to harness its massive wind energy potential.

A major aspect of the upcoming summit in Big Sky is to generate ideas on how to solve the problem of transmitting the power from the farms to a power grid and, eventually, out of state.

After generating its first megawatt of wind power in 2005, Montana’s production has since increased to 386 MW, 3.1 percent of the state’s power, according to American Wind Energy Association stats.

The numbers hardly compare to states that have been pioneering the field. Texas, for instance, has the capacity to produce 10,185 MW annually, 26 times more than Montana. Iowa is the nation’s next-largest producer at 3,675 MW. California, once the nation’s leader in wind production, has since fallen behind; at 3,179 MW it produces roughly twice as much as it did in 1999.

The nation as a whole creates 42,432 MW of wind energy. The top five states (Texas, Iowa, California, Minnesota and Washington) create more than 50 percent of that total.

That’s not to say Montana is neglecting the idea.

The state is currently 18th in actual wind energy generation. The AWEA estimates Montana’s total wind resources at 944,004 potential megawatts, or third most in the U.S., but several complications have dampened its ability to increase quickly.

Creating grids to transmit the electricity is expensive and may take up sensitive areas, says Ken Dragoon, senior resource analyst for the Oregon faction of Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

“Building transmissions is tough. That’s the nut to crack in Montana,” Dragoon said.

“Oregon and Washington wind development was due to renewable energy standards that those states have,” Dragoon said. “Montana has one too, but the standards are based on percent of demand and it doesn’t have the population of the other states.”

Until that problem is answered, Montana will continue to underperform. The state has 2,327 MW additional wind projects waiting to be created, the AWEA says.

Wind production slowed in 2010, and only 11 MW were added in that year.

Montana set a renewable energy standard for its utilities companies to use 15 percent renewables by 2015. Northwestern Energy, the company that services roughly two-thirds of the state with electricity, is on track to meet this standard by the end of 2012, says Kyla Wiens, energy advocate with the Montana Environmental Information Center. About 98 percent of that company’s renewables come from wind.

The other one-third of the state’s utilities companies, which are rural electric cooperatives, don’t have to comply with the renewable energy standard.

“Significant environmental and economic opportunities are missed because electric cooperatives serve nearly a third of the electricity load in Montana and are exempt from complying with Montana’s renewable energy standard,” Wiens said.

Hydroelectricity remains by far the largest renewable energy source in the world today, creating more than five times that of wind energy.

The U.S. currently generates more wind electricity than any other nation, according to a World Wind Energy Association estimate from 2010. China is close behind, and has several projects in place that will ultimately make it the largest wind energy producer in the world.