For about six months, the Judith Gap Wind Energy Center, about 12 miles north of Harlowton just off U.S. Highway 191, has produced power. The site includes about 90 turbines. In January six wind turbines near the Great Falls International Airport started spinning.
The wind turbines at the Horseshoe Bend Wind Park on Gore Hill are part of a private wind development project owned by United Materials of Great Falls. Exergy Development Group in Helena is the project developer.
A variety of other projects are being eyed in Montana. Teton, Pondera, Valley, Meagher and Chouteau counties have wind-power projects on the drawing board. Other projects are being pursued by developers in Whitehall, Reedpoint and at a handful of spots in eastern Montana.
Van Jamison, a former state energy official and wind-power advocate from Helena, said he believes a political climate that is more open to wind development is responsible for the increase.
Last year legislators approved a bill requiring public utilities by 2008 to buy at least 5 percent of their electricity from "renewable resources," such as wind, solar, geothermal or new, small hydroelectric projects. The minimum increases to 10 percent by 2010 and 15 percent by 2015.
Jamison said a growing number of Western states are adopting portfolio standards.
"There also is market demand for this," he said.
More entrepreneurs are checking out the Montana market.
"Right after deregulation, not many people showed up, but we are seeing that change," Jamison said. "My view is that people who started thinking about Montana when we moved to (open) markets are finally beginning to show up."
Uncertainty about environmental regulations concerning mercury and carbon limits, for example, are part of the equation that has developers looking into wind. Volatile fuel prices also add to the drive.
Montana, however, still has to deal with its insufficient and aging transmission system, he said.
"I don't know what's going to happen, but there's been a lot of money spent on some of the projects," Jamison said. "The policymakers must step up and promote policies that will make these things happen. It takes commitment and a lot of work."
The largest wind-power project on the radar in Montana is proposed for about 30 miles northwest of Glasgow. Wind Hunter LLC intends to build and operate a wind-energy development in northcentral Valley County.
The project potentially could be the largest wind-power site in Montana. When complete, it would be twice as large as the Judith Gap wind farm.
The Valley County Wind Energy Project, proposed on a patchwork of private land and public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Montana School Trust Lands, will be built in phases and could reach 500 megawatts.
The first phase includes 33 turbines, intended to churn out 50 megawatts. Future capacity could increase with the addition of 300 turbines.
John Fahlgren, BLM assistant field manager in Glasgow, said the environmental assessment for the project is expected to be complete in the next month. The report is a major step in moving the first phase of the project forward.
Valley County Commissioner David Pippin said he is optimistic.
"They are looking at transmission routes," he said. "We are in a holding pattern, but we think it is feasible."
In Teton County, wind developers from Windpark Solutions America, LLC in Big Sandy are working on a wind-power operation that would produce less than 20 megawatts of power.
Dave Ryan, project manager, said Teton Ridge east of Choteau is promising. Ryan, who also is an energy specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte, said the wind farm could have 13 turbines.
"The wind characteristics there are similar to those at Judith Gap," Ryan said. "We believe that there is adequate transmission."
Ryan said the developers are still working on agreements with private landowners where the project could be built. Ryan also said he believes there is a customer for the power, although he said a confidentiality agreement forbids him from providing details.
"If we can get the turbines, we hope to have this project operational by 2007," he said.
Chouteau County Commission Chairman Jim O'Hara is pursuing a hybrid energy project in his county and is working with Montana's congressional delegation to secure a $5 million federal appropriation.
"This would be a nonpolluting operation," he said.
Forty-percent of the power would be provided by wind turbines. Backup power would come from a biodiesel operation. And O'Hara believes that the biodiesel's source can be grown right in Chouteau County. It would come from safflower and other oil seed crops produced on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. About 20 percent of the farmland in Chouteau County is in CRP, and O'Hara said that land could be put to work in the hybrid project.
"CRP is a big untapped resource," O'Hara said.
An unnamed developer is involved in the project, and the county has looked at some pieces of private property where the power plant could be built, he said.
Three, large wind turbines would generate power when the wind is blowing, and the biodiesel would come online for backup.
Chouteau County essentially would be "off-grid," providing its own power. It might cost a bit more, he said. But residents wouldn't have to pay peak fees, which can be especially costly to irrigators.
"It could be a closed system," O'Hara said.
Initially a hybrid operation could provide power for the schools and hospital. Eventually, with a 3-megawatt plant, the entire county could have hybrid power.
A number of potential wind developers are eyeing Pondera and Glacier counties because of the proposed Montana Alberta Tie, a 186-mile power line developers want to build between Lethbridge and Great Falls, said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.
Canadian developer, Montana Alberta Tie Ltd., is moving forward with the MATL line.
"While there is all the wind in the world here, there is not a line with enough capacity to transfer that power," Jones said. "They are all watching the MATL closely."
Developers have requested topographical maps, and others are looking at leasing land for additional anemometers, or wind gauges, he said.
In Pondera County, commissioners are working with developers, said Commissioner Cyndi Johnson. There is one anemometer in the county, she said. A Minneapolis company that does wind studies owns it.
"We may be able to expand that relationship," she said.
Three regions of the county, all west of Conrad, are promising for development.
"We support alternative energy and are happy to talk with anyone who is interested," she said.
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