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Secretary of State has supported wind energy development as a way to provide a clean, renewable resource

Wind energy is a natural resource custom-made for a world intent on multi-tasking.

That was the idea that occurred to Secretary of State Bob Brown shortly before he took the office in 2001. Back then, many states including Montana were reeling from the after-effects of electric deregulation, Brown recalled recently.

California's wildly fluctuating electricity market was quickly increasing electric rates for Montanans. By developing a new energy source, Brown thought, he could lessen the pain.

So the Republican secretary of state, who is also a member of the State Land Board, started looking at a limitless, free and untapped natural resource: wind.

"I guess it occurred to me that there may be a way wind generators could be placed on (the state trust land)," Brown said. "That could both help to alleviate the electric power crisis and at the same time generate some money for public schools."

Since then, Brown has supported wind energy development in the state by writing columns for newspapers, holding meetings with experts and organizing workshops. Montana ranks fifth in the country for its wind-energy potential, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

"Montana has got an enormous wind potential," Brown said. "And certainly that shouldn't be overlooked in the development of electrical power sources. It's renewable; it's clean. And I think there is a demand for it."

Brown "has done an absolutely fantastic job" in bringing together wind energy experts not only from the state, but also from the surrounding region and from the federal government to initiate wind energy development in Montana, said Russ Fletcher, who has attended several workshops organized by Brown's office.

"I think he certainly should be commended for taking this initiative," said Fletcher, the founder of the Montana Associated Technology Roundtables, which is an informal networking organization for "anyone interested in seeing an improved economy."

Brown has had the foresight to see that the benefit wind energy development brings to the state would go beyond school trust lands, Fletcher said. Wind turbines don't disturb the surrounding environment much or change the land's use by ranchers and farmers in rural areas.

In fact, ranchers and farmers can make extra income through lease or royalty payments on wind turbines on their land.

Wind farms can be a much-needed shot in the economy in rural Montana, bringing investment and jobs, Brown said.

"Maybe this is a little opportunity if we could get it off the ground and get it started, it would benefit rural Montana, small communities, at least to some extent," he said.

In addition to benefits for Montana, developing alternative energy sources like wind is good for the country, the secretary of state said. The nation's dependency on volatile parts of the world for oil is "strategically bad as the war on terror continues."

But despite its strong potential, Montana's wind energy generation capacity is one of the lowest in the country, with a 0.1-megawatt installed capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Washington and Oregon have spearheaded wind energy development in the Northwest.

Washington's installed wind energy capacity is 228 megawatts, or enough to power 228,000 households; Oregon's is 218 megawatts.

Change doesn't come easily, Brown said.

"I'm just doing what little bit I can," he said. "I wish we would be able to develop the wind resource."

Any kind of change follows increased public awareness, Fletcher said. And Brown, who also supports other alternative energy sources such as biomass, has been instrumental in raising Montanans' awareness.

"He is bringing alternative energy to the people; he is making it a topic of conversation," Fletcher said.

Yoshiaki Nohara is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Montana.

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