Montana’s got wind, needs power lines
But environmentalists worry that an expanded grid will help carry more dirty power.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer envisions a day when New Yorkers will be driving cars powered by the wind that howls across the Montana prairie. The Democrat recently called on the federal government to spend $15 billion to build a next-generation transmission grid to link such far-flung regions.Skip to next paragraph
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“You start delivering wind to cars and the [oil-nation] dictators, they get sad fast,” says Mr. Schweitzer in his Helena office-cum-classroom, where he keeps vials of biofuel feed stock and model windmills to show visitors. He has a lump of coal, too – a reminder that Montana not only has lots of wind to harness, but tons of coal to shovel.
The interior West’s abundance of both green-energy resources and traditional fossil fuels make some watchdogs nervous about a rush to build what has been called an Interstate highway system for electrons. The idea of expanding transmission lines is commonly pitched by politicians as a way to put people to work while removing a crucial obstacle to renewable power.
But it’s not going to be just wind and sun on those wires. “[S]ome proponents of expanding coal-fired electricity production are using windfarms as a rationalization for greatly expanding transmission lines through the region.
They talk a lot about wind power, but their real interest is vastly expanded use of coal in generating electricity,” says Larry Swanson, a regional economist at the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Schweitzer does not deny that federally funded transmission lines would also help his state’s coal industry. He says he is a strong advocate not just for renewables but for so-called clean coal technologies.
“We’re going to hook some coal into it,” he says. “Fifty percent of the electricity in America comes from coal. I’m all for change, but unless you are willing to live naked in a tree and eat nuts for the next 30 years, coal’s going to be part of the portfolio.”
Environmental groups have made transmission a priority: Al Gore’s “We Campaign,” for example, is calling for a Unified National Smart Grid, which the group sees as part of a 10-year plan to get the nation using “100 percent clean electricity.”
But they still have some reservations.
“[T]he whole environment community remains concerned about transmission because there is no clear idea of what’s going to be on it,” says Rachel Shimshak, head of the Renewable Northwest Project, a regional advocacy group for renewable energy. “There is nervousness with Montana.”
Nevertheless, her group has been collaborating with power generators, utilities, and regulators on decisions about how and where to upgrade the grid.
Harnessing the prairie wind
In the center of Montana, tucked on rolling prairie land, the population of Judith Gap barely outnumbers the 90 wind turbines cranking out power there. The wind comes roaring from the Crazy Mountains and the Little Belt Range, smooths out as it passes over the grassland, and provides enough force to generate 7 percent of the regional utility’s needs.
Invenergy, the company that owns the Judith Gap wind farm, plans to build more turbines here and in other parts of the state. Other companies are scouting around, too.