Harnessing Montana’s Wind

Wind power could become big business in Montana if transmission lines were not at max capacity

By Justin Franz

Proponents of wind energy say Montana could become the epicenter of the industry in the United States if infrastructure was expanded to handle the additional power.

According to numerous studies, Montana is one of the top states in the nation with untapped wind energy resources. As of 2015, there are more than a dozen major wind farms across the state, the first of which was built a decade ago near Judith Gap. Jeff Fox, Montana policy manager for Renewable Northwest, said the industry could grow rapidly if the right investments were made.

“There is a lot of interest in wind industry but there are a number of challenges right now that need to be addressed before the industry can really prosper,” Fox said.

One of the biggest issues facing the wind industry is a lack of space on the region’s transmission lines. However, Fox said there are ways to alleviate that roadblock without building new lines, including a handful of low cost upgrades that could increase capacity.

Fox believes the demand for wind energy will only increase in the coming years as the economy continues to rebound and utilities make the move to cleaner forms of energy. But it all depends on companies and municipalities making the investment in wind power.

“I think we’re at a fork in the road,” Fox said. “But the wind industry could see a lot of growth.”

In 2014, the wind industry supported more than 100 permanent jobs in the state, but supporters say that would increase rapidly if the conditions were right. A big chunk of the people employed in the industry are at the Glacier Wind Farm, a 210-megawatt capacity facility near Ethridge, northeast of Shelby. Howard Cliver is the site manager at the wind farm and said he has about 20 technicians maintaining the 140 turbines there. The turbines cover about a 4-mile area, according to Cliver. However, despite a nearly endless amount of wind on the Hi Line, Cliver said the Glacier Wind Farm runs into the same problem as nearly every other one in the region.

“We can produce all the energy we want but it’s useless if we can’t send it anywhere,” he said, lamenting the lack of transmission line capacity.

Not everyone believes the future of Montana wind power is on the plains. Ron Cooper is a partner with the Bozeman-based Montana Wind Chasers, LLC., which has been looking at possible wind farm sites in Northwest Montana. He said it is possible to put wind turbines on ridges and that it’s been completed successfully in British Columbia and Maine. He said one of the biggest advantages is that winter tends to the be the windiest time of the year, which is when the area is producing the least amount of hydro-electricity, meaning there is more capacity available in transmission lines.

“We’re offering a way to fill those lines with power,” he said. “There are wind opportunities all across Montana and it’s up to us to make it happen as a state.”

Wind energy will be the topic of a daylong forum at Montana State University in Bozeman on Sept. 9. Gov. Steve Bullock will be the keynote speaker at the event put on by the American Wind Energy Association. For more information visit www.awea.org.