By Emily Stifler ExploreBigSky Managing Editor

GEYSER – NorthWestern Energy just bought its first large-scale wind farm in Montana, the 40-megawatt Spion Kop Wind Project near the town of Geyser.

The project, which began commercial operation in November, has 25 turbans – about half the size of Montana’s other big utility-grade wind farms in terms of number of turbans and electrical output, said NorthWestern Energy spokesman Butch Larcombe.

A Spanish company, NatureEner, owns two of the largest – the 210 MW Glacier Wind Farm near Shelby and the 189 MW Rim Rock farm near Cut Bank. Invenergy, an international player in renewable energy based in Chicago, owns the 135-MW Judith Gap Wind Farm.

Spion Kop, built by the Colorado-based Compass Wind, enables NorthWestern Energy to meet its renewable portfolio standards obligation, under which 15 percent of its energy portfolio must be produced from renewable power by 2015. The wind farm will also help the utility maintain “a balanced resources mix that contributes to long-term rate stability,” said Bob Rowe, NorthWestern Energy President and CEO.

Costs from the $86.1 million project will be dispersed into NorthWestern Energy’s regulated rate base starting in December.

That “doesn’t necessarily mean an increase [for ratepayers],” Larcombe said. That, he says, is because “it may be replacing more expensive [electricity] sources.”

Construction of Spion Kop costs approximately $8 million, and NorthWestern estimates the project will generate an additional $566,000 in property taxes and fees locally during its first year of operation. These costs are now subject to a review by the Montana Public Service Commission.

In other development, NorthWestern Energy has received approximately 30 proposals for community-based renewable energy projects in Montana.

“These would be developed by small, community-based producers, and we’d agree to buy the electricity from them,” Larcombe said. “These people would maybe put up a wind farm and generate electricity, but [otherwise] have no way to connect to grid or distribute it.”

The community-based projects are not related to the 2015 renewable portfolio standards obligation, Larcombe said. “This is just looking down the road.”

He also expects other large, utility-scale wind farms will be developed in Montana.