I grew up in the wind.
It blew me down the street to school in my small Kansas hometown, and it howled me to sleep at night. It forced me to wear a headscarf to keep my childhood perm in place, and to give up trying to wear contacts in my teen years because I couldn’t keep the wind-blown grain dust from scratching the lenses.
Imagine my relief when I got to the much calmer air of western Montana.
Parts of Montana, of course, have wind that rivals the bluster in Kansas, and in recent years farms of giant white turbines have sprouted up near places like Judith Gap and Shelby to harness that clean energy. In terms of wind energy, Montana has gone from producing virtually nothing to something, in a relatively short period of time. Prior to 2005, according to the state Energy Promotion and Development Division, Montana had no commercial-scale wind farms. Eight such farms have been built since then, with a generating capacity of nearly 650 megawatts. That’s still only about 10 percent of Montana’s total electrical generation capacity, but Montana ranks among the top five states in the country for wind energy potential.
Rachel Shimshak wants to see more wind turbines in Montana and other windy parts of the Northwest. As executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based Renewable Northwest Project, Shimshak advocates for the development of renewable energy, including wind, in four states – Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. She was in Montana recently, to speak with lawmakers about fostering that development.
Shimshak has ready answers for the oft-repeated critiques of wind energy development. It’s not an industry that creates jobs on the scale of a new mine or oil patch. But, she says the jobs it does create are usually in rural areas with high unemployment – and they’re permanent.
“For there to be 15 or 20 (new) jobs in a rural area, is quite a lot,” Shimshak said.
Wind energy development is also an industry that depends on heavy government subsidy. But so does oil and gas.
“Unlike oil and gas, which have had federal subsidies in the tax code for the last 100 years, wind energy has only really benefitted from federal support for the last couple of decades,” said Shimshak. “And it has been an on-and-off kind of a thing.”
Shimshak hopes for a federal energy policy that will encourage more clean energy production like wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energies.
On the state level, Montana has a renewable energy standard that requires utilities to get 15 percent of their energy from renewables by the year 2015. Washington and Oregon have a similar requirement. Some lawmakers are pushing the current Montana Legislature to include existing hydropower generation in that standard – a move opposed by renewable energy proponents like Shimshak who argue it could crowd out development of new wind, solar or geothermal projects.
Most of Montana’s energy – whether it’s wind, coal, oil or gas – is exported out of the state. For wind, that means there have to be adequate transmission lines to carry it to those markets. That’s an ongoing problem but Shimshak is encouraged by the development of the Montana Alberta Tie Line that will carry our wind energy north to Canada. She hopes the Mountain States Transmission Intertie project, which would facilitate delivery of Montana wind energy to the western U.S., will eventually be developed, though NorthWestern Energy has shelved that project for now. Construction of transmission lines is often as controversial as the energy development itself, but Shimshak sees progress in addressing those concerns in a way that will attract popular support.
Shimshak is also bullish on wind’s ascendancy as coal recedes. Many coal-fired power plants, including the Corette plant in Billings, are being mothballed as new air pollution requirements go into effect, and as coal becomes less competitive with cheaper natural gas.
“We’re hopeful that in a competitive process for that replacement power that wind and other renewables will be able to play a strong role,” said Shimshak. “And that the power that replaces those old coal plants will be stable-priced, cleaner ... and add to our economic vitality.”
Montana is hardly going to abandon its fossil fuel heritage of coal and oil and gas anytime soon but Shimshak believes Montanans are also supportive of clean energy technologies.
“For the benefits they bring and the risks that they avoid,” said Shimshak. “We’re hopeful that a transition away from fossil fuels and toward greater renewable energy and certainly energy efficiency will happen over time.”
The next time I’m jogging into a stiff Hellgate Canyon breeze, I’ll remind myself wind can be more than a nuisance.
And I won’t be wearing a headscarf; thank goodness, the perm is long gone.
Sally Mauk is news director at Montana Public Radio, KUFM, in Missoula. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Missoulian.