Lost in transmission 

Montana's wind industry is getting blown away

Wind is fickle: Through the first half of the year, anomalous wind patterns had the 90 turbines at central Montana's Judith Gap Wind Farm, the state's second largest, turning out power like never before—some 270,000 megawatt hours, about 30,000 MWH more than their average since the turbines started spinning roughly five years ago. But as Montana's main utility, NorthWestern Energy, is learning, the export market for wind power is fickle, too.

Montana's wind energy production ballooned from about one megawatt in 2005 to more than 400 megawatts today. Now the industry finds itself unable to develop much more, largely due to the lack of transmission lines to get the power to energy-hungry markets.

NorthWestern hopes to change that by zipping power along a proposed $1 billion, 430-mile transmission line, called the Mountain States Transmis-sion Intertie, or MSTI, between Townsend and southern Idaho en route to large markets in California and the Southwest. But the economic viability of the project is in doubt, leaving the future of wind power in Montana—with the third greatest wind energy potential in the country—equally unsettled.

click to enlarge Judith Gap Wind Farm - PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTANA FILM OFFICE
  • Photo courtesy of Montana Film Office
  • Judith Gap Wind Farm

MSTI faces plenty of challenges at home. Last week the Montana Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit over the project's environmental impact statement. And there's a petition drive underway to overturn a measure the state legislature passed earlier in the year giving corporations the power of eminent domain for pipeline and transmission projects like MSTI. But what might kill MSTI is what's happening in out-of-state markets that would be expected to buy Montana's wind power.

Perhaps most significantly, in California, where 33 percent of energy is mandated to come from renewable sources by 2020, the state's Public Utility Commission decided in January that 75 percent of its renewable energy must come from in state, severely limiting the economic opportunity for out-of-state suppliers. "That's a huge, huge swing," says Montana Public Service Commissioner John Vincent, a Dem-ocrat. Julia Haggerty, a researcher and policy analyst at Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics, says other Western states find themselves in a horse race to deliver 25 percent of California's renewable portfolio.

It's a race Montana is losing. Even Idaho, where MSTI would send power, and which doesn't even have a renewable energy mandate, is about to surpass Montana in total installed wind power

Idaho Power, one of the state's utilities, will have about 800 megawatts of wind power online—about double Montana's current capacity—within the next two years, according to power supply manager Mark Stokes. Meanwhile, energy analysts question the logic behind sending Montana wind power to a state that's developing wind more successfully and has a geographic advantage in serving markets in the Southwest.

And in the Southwest, transmission capacity is expanding as renewable energy projects break ground. In June, for example, Nevada utility NV Energy unveiled its Renewable Transmission Initiative, an effort to connect renewable energy zones in Nevada to markets in California and elsewhere in the region. Last Thursday, a California company announced plans to build a 150-megawatt solar power plant in Southern Nevada. Says Vincent: "It gives another example of where in the Southwest, which is the target for MSTI, they are essentially producing so much of their own power—whether it's solar or wind or geothermal—that it dramatically diminishes the chance for making Montana wind viable given the 1,500-mile transmission costs involved."

Last year, NorthWestern Energy launched an open-season process to identify potential buyers of energy sent along MSTI. It's had to extend the deadline due to a lack of interest. "There is confusion in the Western market," says Mike Cashell, NorthWestern's vice president of transmission. "Because of that, we have extended the open season until at least the end of this year while some of that stuff sorts itself out. We're still a believer that California and other western states can't meet their [renewable energy] standards solely from internal resources...We're still confident and hopeful that the market can absorb generation from Montana."

While Montana's wind industry flags, it's not the only state suffering from a lack of transmission. The Center for Rural Affairs released a report last week that found that in rural areas there are 275,000 megawatts of wind power that remain unconnected to the grid.

Despite Montana's challenges, Cameron Yourkowski, a transmission policy researcher with Renewable Northwest Project, says 25 percent of California's renewable portfolio is still "a big chunk of renewable energy...more than enough for Montana wind and MSTI to compete in."

"If we could get over this transmission hump...Montana wind would get developed," says Chuck Magraw, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Magraw sees one definite solution: a national renewable portfolio standard mandating the development of more wind power facilities. "That right there would basically seal the deal," he says.

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