By Nick Engelfried, Big Sky Weekly Environmental Columnist

When the Judith Gap Energy Center began producing wind energy on a commercial scale in 2006, it marked the beginning of a new chapter in Montana’s energy history. Composed of 90 wind turbines, each more than 250 feet high, the Judith Gap project was the first major wind installation connected to the grid in Montana.

Today, Judith Gap has a generating capacity of 135 megawatts. This electricity is sold to NorthWestern Energy—the company that services two-thirds of Montana’s grid. In addition to producing clean, renewable energy, the wind farm has proven an asset for the local economy.

Judith Gap, a town of less than 200, has benefitted from construction and maintenance jobs brought in by the wind farm, as well as increased tourism. Wind farms on private lands also generate earnings for landowners who lease to energy companies. An attractive thing about wind is it never runs out; so unlike land devoted to coal, oil or gas exploration, lands leased to wind farms can in theory continue turning a profit indefinitely.

Like wind farms on private land, projects on state school trust lands can serve as a long-term source of revenue, this time in the form of taxes paid to the state. The Judith Gap farm is on a mix of private and state lands, and there is potential for wind development on state lands throughout Montana.

Judith Gap has been surpassed in size by NaturEner’s three-phase project near Shelby. The 106.5-megawatt Glacier Wind 1 project began operation in 2008, followed by the slightly smaller Glacier Wind 2 in 2009.

The third phase of NaturEner’s wind investment in Montana, the 189-megawatt Rim Rock project, is slated to begin operation by the end of this year. All three wind farms are located on private lands in Glacier and Toole counties.

A few other small commercial wind farms are also up and running in Montana, with other projects in various stages of development. Wind now produces more than 3 percent of Montana’s total electricity mix—not bad for an industry that was nonexistent only seven years ago. Still, wind has a long way to go before it catches up with coal and hydropower, which produce the vast majority of Montana’s energy.

Montana has plenty of wind to go around; in fact, it’s rated one of the top five U.S. states in terms of wind generation potential. But at present, wind titans like Texas, Iowa and California dwarf our state’s wind industry.

It’s not surprising that these highly populated states, with their larger energy demand, would outstrip Montana in wind generation. But at the end of 2010, even Wyoming produced more than three times the wind energy than Montana.

One issue is that, even among environmentalists, not everyone agrees all Montana wind projects are good. Though wind is a clean energy source that reduces reliance on other fossil fuels, individual projects may damage the local environment. Opponents of a wind project near Livingston argue turbines will harm golden eagles and other sensitive wildlife.

Conservation groups were also concerned when a 2007 study showed Judith Gap turbines were unexpectedly killing hundreds of bats. It turned out the wind farm was located in the path of a bat migration route. Today wind developers are careful to avoid major bird migration paths; but because less is known about bat behavior, impacts on these flying mammals may be overlooked.

To be successful, wind developers will need to prove they are taking local environmental concerns into account. This means avoiding areas where development has the most impact on wildlife and sensitive ecosystems. It also means keeping nearby residents informed about potential wind development through an open and transparent public process, and working to create local jobs.

The question lies in how future developers will rise to meet these challenges. However when harnessed responsibly, wind can produce clean, renewable energy while generating revenue for Montana landowners or schools. Montana has much to gain by finding the best way to use wind.