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Montana Green Power

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Perspective on Wind Project

The Way I See It 
By Glenn Marx, Whitehall Ledger Publisher

Nearly four decades ago Bob Dylan told us the answer was blowing in the wind. Right now, in Montana, answers might indeed be blowing in the wind ... answers to concerns about environmentally friendly power, affordable power, additional power supply and the possibility of some minor local economic development.

The Montana Power Company announced on Dec. 4 that it would buy 150 megawatts of wind-generated power from Montana Wind Harness, a new company out of Missoula.

The MPC announcement was hailed by everyone from Sen. Conrad Burns to Chris Borton of Sage Mountain Center, which is a pretty wide swath of support. For years, the wind in Montana has been considered an untapped resource, and putting the wind to work makes economic and environmental sense. Wind is abundant, it is renewable, and it presents a far less environmental risk than damming a river or building a coal-fired energy plant.

Wind turbines, however, are not invisible. Nordex USA, a subsidiary of Nordex AG (based in Germany and Denmark), will build the turbines, which will be 195-feet tall. A three-blade propeller 195-feet in diameter will be attached to the 195-foot turbine tower, and each turbine will generate 1.3 megawatts of power. Think of a building 20-stories tall with fan blades cutting through a20-story diameter. Wind turbines generally have to be in the open or in a natural funnel, where the wind is strongest. And wind turbines do kill birds, which is why avian studies are associated with wind farm construction.

But the environmental impacts of wind turbines are almost nothing when measured against other forms of generating power, so there will be virtually no opposition to the development of wind farms in Montana.

More interestingly, the MPC announcement has local ramifications. The 150 megawatts of power. will be generated by 115 wind turbines located in Montana, and the Whitehall area is considered a possibility for one of the wind farm sites. Sites in Judith Basin County, the Great Falls area, north of Helena, and near Cut Bank are also under consideration. Wind is clearly not an endangered species in Montana, but it is interesting to note that wind is not as reliable as you might think. A total of 115 wind turbines will be built, and each one will generate 1.3 megawatts of power, which totals 150 megawatts of power. Yet only 50 megawatts of actual power will be generated because there are days when the wind simply won't blow strong enough to generate power.

Officials from Montana Wind Harness were in Whitehall on Tuesday, Dec. 11, and spent several hours looking at potential wind turbine sites on Golden Sunlight Mine property and meeting with GSM and local economic development officials. The GSM site does have some advantages to it. A power substation is already in place, and high capacity lines are already in place. The area has been thoroughly studied, the land is already disturbed and the landowner - GSM - is more than willing to consider the possibility.

Montana Wind Harness has said within the next few weeks it will make a decision which sites will receive wind measuring and environmental studies. Those studies will take about a year, and once complete, construction of wind farms will begin. Plans call for construction of wind farms to start in late 2002, with turbines in operation and generating power in 2003.

You would think the GSM site will make the initial cut and receive wind measuring and environmental studies. And if a year from now, the studies show the wind is there, you'd think with GSM's cooperation a wind farm is a real possibility.

"The environmental impacts of wind turbines are almost nothing when measured against other forms of generating power, so there will be virtually no opposition to the development of wind farms in Montana."

The jobs that would come with a wind farm are minimal, and since wind farm turbines are excluded from property taxes, tax benefits to the county would be minimal. So wind farms are low impact environmentally and low impact economically. That's okay. The construction and maintenance workers might not be permanent residents here, but they would spend extended periods here. The turbines generate money as well as power, and some of the money would naturally find its way onto Main Street in Whitehall. As long as the wind turbines wouldn't threaten other potential uses - uses with high economic contributions to the area - there is no downside to playing host to a wind farm. I hope Montana Wind Harness makes the decision to study the Whitehall area site, and we at the Ledger are ready to assist in that possibility.

Montana Wind Harness has contracted with Nordex USA to build the wind turbines, and the turbines must be built in Montana. Nordex is looking for a possible manufacturing plant location, and Jefferson County is under consideration with three other sites as a wind turbine manufacturing center. The plant would be a high economic impact proposal, and the tax benefits to the county and local impact to the economy are intriguing. Jefferson County is probably a long shot for the plant, however, given the other three candidates are Butte, Great Falls and Helena. We do have some financial carrots to offer, however, and I'm wondering if maybe the metal mines loan program could be modified to offer a zero percent interest loan (only if the plant would be built near Whitehall or Cardwell). Interest free money would have to look attractive, wouldn't it?

Not everyone is happy with the MPC decision to award the contract to Montana Wind Harness. Keep in mind the magnitude of this contract: a $120 million investment, the largest energy project since Colstrip and the state's largest wind farm. Navitas Energy (a subsidiary of Northern Alternative Energy), a finalist for the MPC contract, has been grumbling about the selection of Montana Wind Harness. Navitas said it has produced over 185 million kilowatt-hours of wind energy, is a leading wind power developer and has an extensive track record. Nordex (the turbine manufacturer) and Ameresco (a type of project manager) do have track records, but Montana Wind Harness is essentially a new company with no track record. And Navitas said its price for generating the wind power was cheaper than the Montana Wind Harness bid. The difference between the price reportedly offered by Navitas and the Montana Wind Harness price accepted by MPC will allegedly cost ratepayers millions of dollars over the 20-year life of the contract.

MPC said it never received a formal price offer that was cheaper than Montana Wind Harness until negotiations with Montana Wind Harness had already started. Navitas said it did formally make a price offer that was cheaper, and says it can prove it.

The questions of why MPC chose a new company over an established company, and why it chose a higher price rather than a lower one, will come before the Public Service Commission on Dec. 21. The PSC's eventual decisions about MPC's contract award may help determine what company supplies power to MPC, what company builds the turbines and where in Montana the turbine manufacturing plant is located. But no matter what the PSC does, wind power is going to be playing a major role in our energy picture, and that certainly brightens our energy future.

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