Comment: Wind is driving energy development In Montana

Source: By Jeff L. Fox, Guest Columnist, Bozeman Daily Chronicle • Posted: Monday, March 16, 2015

Wind energy contributed significantly more new electricity to power the nation than any other resource last year, according to recently released data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The EIA predicts the trend will continue in 2015, expecting 9.8 gigawatts of wind energy to be developed nationwide or about half of the generating capacity to come online this year.

The data and projections confirm what’s happening in Montana, where wind has been leading new electric energy development for the past 10 years.

In 2005, Montana passed a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requiring large investor owned utilities to acquire 15 percent of their energy from new renewable resources. In the 10 years since the passage of the RPS, 60 percent of the new energy capacity constructed in Montana for in-state use and for export has been wind energy. The 688 megawatts of wind energy development has meant 1.4 billion in economic investment, more than $2 million in annual lease payment to landowners, hundreds of construction and permanent jobs, and tens of millions in property taxes to state and local governments. It has also done so without negatively impacting in-state consumer electric rates, as a 2014 bipartisan interim legislative committee found in an exhaustive study of the state’s RPS.

The RPS plateaus this year at 15 percent, but wind development is not slowing down.

Recently, two community renewable wind projects signed power purchase agreements with NorthWestern Energy to supply renewable power. The Greycliff wind project located in Sweetgrass County is 20 megawatts in size, while the New Colony wind project in Wheatland County is 25 megawatts. Both projects are expected to begin delivering power to NorthWestern in 2015 and both will be at least 50 percent owned by Montana interest, keeping even more economic benefits in Montana.

Additionally, a negotiated contract between a wind developer and NorthWestern Energy was just approved by the Public Service Commission for a 25-megawatt wind farm in Teton County. The Greenfield wind project is expected to complete construction in 2016. Together the three projects will deliver a total of 70 megawatts, enough to power about 20,000 households, to NorthWestern Energy customers at a fixed and stable price for 25 years. All three of the wind farms compare favorably in terms of price with NorthWestern’s current energy supply resources and will cost less than the energy delivered from NorthWestern’s share of the Colstrip unit-4 coal plant.

Even more exciting, the 240 megawatt Mud Springs wind project in Carbon County has already begun construction, confident it can strike a deal to export power south into Wyoming to a regional utility. If it succeeds, the $480 million project will dramatically boost the economic output of a sparsely populated area of Carbon County and help fill the county and state coffers with money for schools, roads and more.

In sum, these four near-term wind projects will draw more than $600 million in capitol investment, create more than 500 construction jobs, permanently employ about 40 Montanans and pay millions in taxes every year, all while the land beneath the wind turbines remains productive for farming or ranching.

Even projects that don’t directly harness wind energy are being driven by the success of wind farms. The proposed 400-megawatt Gordon Butte pumped hydro storage facility in Meagher County is a good example, because it would help store wind energy and provide additional flexibility to an increasingly renewable energy centered portfolio in the region. If successful, the Gordon Butte project is expected to attract $800 million in private investment, create 350 construction jobs over three years, and employ at least 20 permanent workers.

Montana is lucky to have one of the best wind resources in the country and it has been driving energy development in the state for more than a decade. As other Western states look to reduce carbon emissions and purchase the lowest cost renewable resources available, Montana will likely see even more wind energy growth and accompanying economic benefit ahead.