Great Falls woman pushes for more wind power

By Dave Reese, Montana Living

Three things happened in 2001 that convinced  Peggy Beltrone it was time for wind power.

One was the fact she was on a committee to study poverty in north central  Montana. Second, she toured a powerful wind farm in neighboring Alberta. Then came the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and Beltrone, a Cascade County commissioner, become convinced that wind energy could help solve poverty in Montana and reduce our dependence on foreign energy. 

"The more I knew, the more it seemed like I should be spending my time trying to get wind energy developed," Beltrone said.

Beltrone, now in her third term as Cascade County commissioner in Great Falls, leads the county's wind-marketing efforts. She's working at tapping the abundant wind resource that blows down off the east side of the Continental Divide and right through Cascade County. The county, with its seat in Great Falls, is wind rich - and Beltrone knows it.

Cascade County is one of the windiest places in the United States. About 30 percent of Cascade County's 2,700 square miles has powerful and predictable wind. 

She sees the demand ramping up, as demand for renewable energy sources increases, but getting the wind-generated electricity distributed is the hard part. But that is changing, too.

A new 216-mile transmission line between Montana and Alberta has passed  several rounds of regulatory hurdles and began construction this fall, giving Cascade County wind developers an outlet for their power. 

"We have the resource, there is a demand ... the pathway to get it to market is what's stopping us," Beltrone said. "We've got developers falling all over themselves, but until we can get transmission lines, it will stop the development."

Private money went in to putting the line to Alberta, and says Beltrone, "That's the way transmission is going to be built in the future."

When the Montana-Alberta line is built, north central Montana would have potential for delivering 600 megawatts of electricity - roughly four times the amount of electricity generated by the 135-megawatt project in Montana's Judith Basin.

There are jobs and economic impact already being created by wind power.  The Montana-Alberta transmission line alone will generate nearly $750,000 in state tax revenue, as well as lease payments to the landholders whose land the line runs through.

The United States is adding wind power at a rapid pace.  Last year the United States added 5,000 megawatts (five gigawatts) of wind electricity, bringing the total amount of wind energy generated in America to 17 gigawatts. That leap made the United States the fastest-growing producer of wind-generated electricity in the world in 2007, but there's a long way to go; less than one percent of the electricity in the United States is generated by wind, according to Beltrone.

The federal government's goal is to have 20 percent of electrical usage by the year 2030 be generated by renewable sources like wind, Beltrone said. But in order to get there, the United States will have to add 18,000 megawatts a year - nearly three times what the U.S. added in 2007 alone.

"We're just at the beginning of the demand," Beltrone said. "I see great potential in the demand side."


Around Great Falls you see the signs of wind power being developed. Tall, 80-meter towers are busy reading the wind. They're not generating power, just accumulating data on wind potential so that wind farmers can make an accurate assessment before they decide to sink millions of dollars into expensive wind turbines. Cascade County has 13 projects in development that will study the wind for 18 months.

"It's a serious step that the developers take, to study the wind," Beltrone said.

Most of the data that the government has provide was calculated at 20 meters off the ground, so the developers study the wind at 80 meters for at least 1 1/2 years. That will buy them some time. "They're all watching for transmission," Beltrone said.

One large wind farm is already producing and selling electricity. The Horseshoe Bend project is the largest wind project in Cascade County, with six turbines that went online in January 2006. Power from that project is being purchased by Idaho Power, the first wind-generated electricity that Idaho had bought, according to Beltrone.

Cascade County recently added wind power to its own portfolio. The county built a windmill that will power the county shop.

When Beltrone was working on her poverty study in Montana, she saw some very poor regions. In fact, 10 of the 20 most poverty-stricken counties in the United States are in Montana. But they have one untapped resource: wind.

Northwestern Energy, which provides natural gas to much of Montana, is required to have 15 percent of its energy portfolio generated by renewable sources by the year 2015. In 20 years I think we'll have a  number of wind parks in Cascade County," Beltrone said, "and I think they are symbols for the right way our energy policy should be."

Wind is not  only clean to produce, it leaves a smaller footprint than something like coal-fired  electrical plants. Cascade County alone has several abandoned mining sites that will take "another 500 years" for their mark to be gone on the earth, Beltrone said. "I can't see wind turbines leaving a footprint like that," she said. "Maybe if the wind turbines are working in the plains, we don't have to send soldiers to the desert."

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