Clean Energy Pioneers

June 2010

Bridging the Gap

Montana Harnesses Strong Winds In the West

Posted: 25-June-2010; Updated: 25-June-2010

Bob Quinn, a farmer in Big Sandy, Mont., is a visionary who has successfully planted the seeds for renewable energy. Quinn's dream germinated on a serendipitous trip to Germany a few years ago, where he learned from a relative how to sell wind energy to make money. The pair met later in Montana, explored potential sites for a wind farm, and settled on Judith Gap about 100 miles northwest of Billings.

Why Judith Gap?

Montana's hammer-blow gusts are legendary. Rocky Mountain winds can uproot Ponderosa pines and sail them like kites. Highway signs sport wind socks, usually full, so truckers can navigate U.S. 191 between the towns of Judith Gap and Harlowton. In the Judith Gap, wind speeds average 16 to 18 mph, ranking the area as one of the windiest spots in the West, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. "The last time the wind stopped blowing at our place, the buildings fell down," Quinn said.

Some of the best wind in the nation

A Harvard study released in August 2009 found Montana tied Kansas for having the second most wind energy potential in the nation. Texas was first. The study shows Montana has the potential to produce 4,700 terawatt hours of wind electricity—370 times the state's current total retail electricity sales. Future studies will determine how much of that potential can be put into commercial use.

Today, about 90 turbines swirl above 8,300 acres at the Judith Gap Wind Farm, churning out 135 megawatts of electricity without air pollution. That's enough power for about 33,750 Montanan homes or about 8 percent of the electricity NorthWestern Energy provides the state. The project is operated by Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, which took over the project from Quinn's company, Wind Park Solutions.

As Montana's first commercial wind farm, the project represented a groundbreaking step toward meeting the state's 15 percent by 2015 renewable energy goal established by the Legislature. Since the Judith Gap project began operation in 2006, wind energy has rapidly expanded across Montana. The state generated 1 megawatt of wind power in 2003, but government estimates show that wind electrical generation jumped to over 370 megawatts by 2009. Wind farms have sprung up at Horseshoe Bend near Great Falls, Centennial wind park near Swift Current and the NaturEner project near Ethridge.

Schools benefit from windy plains

For each 1,000 megawatts of wind power Montana produces, 1.2 billion gallons of water will be saved and 2.9 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, a greenhouse gas, will be averted annually, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

But the environment isn't the only beneficiary.

One thousand megawatts of wind power would pump $1.2 billion into Montana's economy in construction jobs, property tax revenue, payments to landowners hosting windmills and operational jobs, NREL estimates.

Wind projects benefit schools, too. Montana owns 5.1 million acres of "school trust lands," and energy developers who lease the lands pay a portion of electrical generation revenue to public education. Montana K-12 schools receive about $60,000 annually from the 640 acres of trust lands at the Judith Gap Wind Farm, according to the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Montana State University–Great Falls College of Technology and three other campuses received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to offer certificate programs in energy technology. Mel Lehman, project manager at MSU–Great Falls, said the program will train 100 students annually as wind technicians.

"The goal is to provide lots of good paying jobs. Montana has long been losing jobs and exporting students at a loss to the state economy, so the state's new energy policies are linked to economic policy," Lehman said.

Wind resources provide rural economic development

These days, Quinn is more focused on raising an exotic strain of Egyptian wheat on his 3,400 acre farm than on wind power. He aims to power his farm completely on biofuels from feedstock he grows. Still, he marvels at how his inaugural Judith Gap project led to a proliferation of wind power across Montana.

"My grandfather told me you can't argue with success, and Judith Gap has been a great success," Quinn said. "It brought jobs to small, poor rural towns in decline. It's given enthusiasm and push to develop wind energy in Montana as a whole, and culturally it's opened an alternative besides coal as an energy option. Just watching those turbines go around, producing energy, it's a very satisfying thing to know," he said.