Inheriting the Wind 

Blackfeet plan Montana’s first wind-powered utility plant

As Californians grope blindly through the darkness of energy deregulation, their economy stumbling through rolling blackouts, skyrocketing electric bills and stopgap bailout measures for their cash-strapped utilities, Montanans watch anxiously to see how this bodes for their own plunge into deregulation.

But while some leaders in Helena are calling for a hasty retreat to the fossil fuel quick fixes of the past, tribal council members with the Blackfeet Nation are moving swiftly into the future with a clean, affordable and abundant energy source in their own backyard—wind.

The project, known as Blackfeet WindPower One, will be the first multi-megawatt wind generating facility in Montana and the first utility-scale wind farm on tribal land anywhere in the country. The project is a joint effort of the tribally owned Siyeh Development Corporation, Montana Power Company (MPC) and SeaWest WindPower of San Diego.

When the project is completed by the fall of 2002, the Blackfeet wind farm outside of Browning will encompass about 40 acres with 38 wind turbines that are capable of generating 22 megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power more than 5,000 homes. Construction is expected to begin in the spring of next year.

“For the tribe’s part, financially it’s a great opportunity for us to dive into this wind energy because of the power shortage,” says Leo Kennerly, tribal council member for the Blackfeet Nation. “And we have plenty of wind to go around.”

According to Dave Ryan, senior distribution engineer with MPC, the Blackfeet Windpower One will generate electricity at a wholesale cost of about 2.9 cents per kilowatt-hour, making it cost-competitive with MPC’s other sources of electricity generation in Montana, notably, coal-fired power plants and hydroelectric dams.

“[Wind power] is still a tough sell,” admits Ryan, about the challenges that have faced wind energy development elsewhere in Montana. “You have to have three things: you have to have wind, you have to have transmission, and you have to have a customer.”

But the Blackfeet wind farm will be located close to existing transmission lines, reducing the need to construct new ones, says Dennis Fitzpatrick of Siyeh Development Corporation, a tribal corporation formed by the Blackfeet Nation to manage its economic enterprises. Finding customers will not be a problem either, since MPC has agreed to accept three megawatts of electricity from the Blackfeet facility, with the remainder to be sold to the Washington-based Bonneville Power Administration.

As for the abundance of wind, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation has more than its share. Ryan says that of the three locations are currently under consideration—an Environmental Impact Statement is being prepared for each—any one would be capable of driving the 600 kilowatt turbines about 40 percent of the time, putting them at the upper end of the wind-reliability scale. Already, five other wind turbines are in operation on the Blackfeet Reservation, four of which provide electricity to the Browning’s waste treatment facility.

What’s surprising about the Blackfeet WindPower One is that it represents Montana’s only large-scale foray into the wind energy revolution already sweeping the Northwest. Most of Montana’s neighbors have since recognized the environmental and economic benefits of wind power. Currently, the world’s largest wind farm—the Stateline Wind Generating Project—is under construction near Walla Walla, Wash. When completed, that project will include 450 windmills capable of generating 300 megawatts of power, enough energy for 70,000 homes.

But experts say that Montana’s wind potential is even greater. The American Wind Energy Association ranks Montana fifth in the nation for possible wind energy generation, with the potential to generate an estimated 1 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Patrick Mazza, author of a report on alternative energy entitled, “Accelerating the Green Energy Revolution,” calls Montana “a Saudi Arabia of the breeze [that] could reliably supply 116,000 megawatts, 15 percent of U.S. electrical demand.” Still, as of April 2000, wind power provided less than 0.5 percent of MPC’s current energy supply.

In the past, wind generation developers in Montana faced an additional obstacle: Its harsh winters were notoriously punishing on wind turbines. However, recent advances in turbine technology have minimized that problem. SeaWest WindPower has developed more than 85 megawatts of utility-scale wind projects in the Foote Rim Creek area of Wyoming, as well as nearly 500 megawatts of wind project in California, the United Kingdom and Spain.

Blackfeet WindPower One also offers the Blackfeet Nation an opportunity to create new jobs in a region that has long suffered double-digit unemployment. According to Kennerly, a number of temporary and permanent jobs will be created by the wind farm, both in the construction process and for the ongoing maintenance of the turbines.

“We see the opportunity to make some income plus create some jobs that are well-needed here.” Says Kennerly. “That’s why most of the council feels that now is the time to do it.”

As with the development of any natural resource, wind farms are not without their environmental impacts, notably on raptors and other migratory birds. But according to the Blackfeet’s Ervin Barlson, that will be insignificant compared to the numerous environmental impacts of fossil fuel generation.

Blackfeet WindPower One is being funded in part with a $1.5 million subsidy from MPC’s Universal System Benefits Charge, a fee tacked onto the bills of all Montana ratepayers to fund renewable energy projects, energy conservation and low-income billing assistance.

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