Will Montana Be Able to Reach Its Wind Potential?

If you’ve ever been there, it won’t come as a surprise that Montana leads the nation in wind energy potential. Most of the state's sites are in low population and rural areas that are well-suited for wind development because there is not the same level of objection to visual impact and the areas would benefit from economic development. To support its wind industry, Montana’s Renewable Portfolio Standard requires regulated utilities to purchase 15 percent of their electricity supply from renewable sources by 2015. While a little on the low side, the state’s standard helps provide guaranteed market demand, and in turn market stability, for renewable development.

In addition to the RPS, the state’s Public Service Commission took steps to encourage small, independent wind production by removing a 50-megawatt limit on the aggregate amount of power that the state’s largest utility, NorthWestern, had to buy. The utility, however, is balking at having to buy power from outside producers and is employing a full-court press to restrict the wind energy contracts. So far, NorthWestern has gone to court to ask a state district judge to overturn parts of the PSC order, including removing the 50-megawatt limit. The utility also helped draft a bill that would tightly restrict which wind power projects can get contracts. The PSC has agreed, against the recommendation of its legal staff, to reinstate the 50-megawatt limit while the court case is being decided.

The Montana case highlights the barriers that renewable energy production faces. While NorthWestern is claiming that adding more wind producers would hurt ratepayers, the opposite would be true. Increasing the number of producers increases competition, and ratepayers will likely be the ones that benefit. With more projects producing wind, costs should come down and electricity production would be more stable. Relying on just a few big projects makes the energy supply more vulnerable to disruption if one of those projects goes off-line. A large network of small producers, on the other hand, stabilizes the supply. Not to mention, increasing the number of small independent producer is good for the state’s economy. Renewable energy creates more jobs per megawatt than fossil fuels.

We continually hear how renewable energy cannot meet our energy needs. The reality is that renewable production continues to face more obstacles that prevent its full development than other energy sources. In Montana, the state’s largest utility is using concern for customers to mask the fact that its actions hurt customers in the short and long-term. Blocking independent wind development doesn’t help ratepayers, it only helps NorthWestern maintain a monopoly on electricity production.

Not fully developing its wind potential is bad not just for Montana’s environment; it also stunts the state’s economic growth.

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