Winds of Change

Federal and state officials gathered with industry leaders in Big Sky to discuss the future of wind energy in the West

By Dillon Tabish

Last week the U.S. Energy Department released a prospectus for the world’s energy over the next 25 years. The report details the expected exponential growth in energy needs and the emergence of renewable resources as the fastest-growing sources of power generation.

Worldwide energy needs will increase by 50 percent by 2035, according to the International Energy Outlook. But as a possible underlying answer to those great demands, one of the report’s focal points is the importance of renewable resources, like wind.

Wind and other natural replenishing elements are the fastest-growing sources of power in the world, according to the report. The total generation of electricity from renewable resources increases by 3.1 percent every year, energy analysts say, and the share of worldwide power generation will grow from 10 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2035. More than 82 percent of that increase in renewable energy will be in hydroelectric and wind power, the report says.

Although the contribution from renewable sources is far less than that of fossil fuels, the swift growth is a trend that will continue into the future, particularly with wind.

This news resounds in Montana, the “wind energy capital of the United States.”

Since taking office in 2005, Gov. Brian Schweitzer has declared Montana to be the nation’s leader in wind power potential. The state has become one of the leaders in wind energy development over the last six years, moving up from a ranking of 50th in the nation to 18th. In the West, Montana leads in gigawatts produced with over 830,000 hours per year, which is more than the nine other states combined besides Wyoming.

This week, federal and state officials gathered with industry leaders in Big Sky to discuss the future of wind energy in the West. The Western Wind and Transmission Summit, which began Sunday, was a three-day gathering that focused on furthering development in electricity generation and transmission.

“This summit highlights the fact that we have one of the best wind resources in the nation,” Evan Barrett, the state’s director of economic development, said from Helena last week. “It also highlights that under Gov. Schweitzer, we’ve been the fastest wind developing state in the nation.”

Montana currently has four industrial-size wind farms operating across the central and eastern parts of the state. Eight other projects are in various stages of development, including the Rim Rock Wind Farm near Shelby. Rim Rock, which is expected to begin construction this year, will be the state’s largest — and one of the largest in the northwest — wind energy projects with over 200 turbines creating over 300 megawatts per year.

“Renewable energy is the way things are moving,” Barrett said. “There’s a lot of ways within Montana this would benefit financially and economically. Along with the fact that it’s helping the U.S. meet its energy needs for the future.”

Up north in Canada, wind power is also the fastest growing source of new energy, according to the U.S. Energy Department. The country’s share of total generation is expected to reach 5 percent within 25 years from less than 1 percent in 2008.

“We must move forward now before we fall further behind the rest of the world,” Randy Stratton, this week’s conference co-chairman, said.

The subject of energy transmission goes hand-in-hand with generation and was a large focus of this week’s summit.

Company’s like Kalispell’s Zinc Air have worked to find an efficient way to store energy generated from wind turbines, which are solely dependent on an invariable source, i.e. wind.

Zinc Air, located on U.S. Highway 2, is at the forefront of this technology and will showcase its business at this week’s summit.

“I really feel like we’re in the belly of a good opportunity,” Craig Wilkins, executive vice president, said.

“There’s great things about wind but there’s also the inability to know how hard it’s going to blow and when. We believe we have the long-term winner in an area of cost and functionality with our batteries.”

Wilkins said focusing on exporting is the key to furthering wind power’s benefits for Montana.

Considering the small need for electricity locally, Montana has immense opportunities to sell energy if the transmission capabilities come to fruition, said Dave Olsen, a speaker at this week’s summit and the managing director of Western Grid Group.

Olsen has been involved in the progress of renewable energy for over 20 years, and has had a hand in helping lead California down the path of natural resource energy and transmission development.

His message in Big Sky this week was simple — the decisions have to be made today to determine what infrastructure will be in place 20 years down the road.

“That’s the big picture as we modernize our grid,” he said. “To really improve the performance of the grid; to come out with a more reliable, less expensive electric service based around modern, clean resources … That’s the big picture.”

Montana officials estimate the furthering development of wind energy could result in almost 3,000 jobs, $14 million a year in landowner payments and more than $78 million per year in local property tax revenue by 2030.

In an address to this week’s summit, Schweitzer emphasized the importance of taking advantage of this opportunity.

“If we are going to truly capitalize on our domestic energy capacity,” he said, “we must develop our wind resource potential along with the transmission necessary to deliver the electricity to the market.”

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