Ill Winds For Wind Power Project
Thursday, September 27th 2007, 8:36 am
News On 6
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) _ The strong winds that blow across the Northern Plains have been chased over the past two years by a spate of politicians and entrepreneurs eager to exploit them as an energy alternative to fossil fuels.
Yet political will, tax breaks and a seemingly endless supply of wind have not been enough to guarantee developers can turn wind into watts. As a result, one of the largest wind farms ever proposed in the United States has been cut to a fraction of its original size after running into opposition from an unlikely source _ environmentalists.
``Montana has a great wind resource, one of the best in the country,'' said Gary Evans, chief executive of GreenHunter Energy Inc. ``But you can talk about this all you want. Business goes the place it's easiest to do business.''
GreenHunter's proposed 500-megawatt wind farm north of Glasgow, near the Canadian border, stirred a backlash this year from environmentalists worried that the 400-foot turbines would loom over an adjacent wilderness area.
GreenHunter had attempted to appease environmentalists by scaling the project back to 170 megawatts. When that, too, ran into opposition, the company was ready to suspend the project before local officials convinced it to return with a pared-down plan just 10 percent of its original size.
The Texas company now plans a project of only 50 megawatts and looks to take almost 90 percent of the $500 million it planned to invest in the Valley County site and sink it into a different wind project, most likely in California.
GreenHunter has also shelved three other Montana wind projects totaling 372 megawatts because of a capacity shortage on the transmission lines needed to carry the power. Construction of new lines has also stirred opposition from environmentalists and landowners.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer's economic development chief, Evan Barrett, said GreenHunter's decisions show that government can only do so much to spur the development of wind power.
``They've got other places to go with their money, and we're not the only place the wind blows,'' Barrett said. ``Obviously it would have been nice if it could have been bigger, but stuff happens.''
GreenHunter's troubles illustrate that large renewable energy projects _ benefits notwithstanding _ have yet to gain automatic acceptance from groups with a history of opposing coal plants, dams and other facilities that change the landscape.
On a broader level, the company's decision reflects the complications facing policy makers who see wind as a means to curb global warming and reduce oil dependence.
``We're still fighting a war in Iraq and people who are honest about it will admit we're there over oil,'' said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who helped craft Montana's renewable energy policies as a state senator. ``We need to figure out a way to make these projects work. Either that or we all start riding bicycles.''
Besides opposition from environmentalists, developers in rural states including Montana face power line constraints that can leave prospective wind farms with no way to deliver their energy, said Larry Flowers of the National Wind Technology Center in Boulder, Colo.
``You have to have enough transmission (capacity) to justify those big projects,'' he said.
More than 20 states have enacted laws over the last decade to spur wind development. Montana mandated that utilities get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015 and this year the state added tax breaks for transmission lines that carry renewable energy.
State officials said those measures attracted proposals for more than 2,000 megawatts of wind power, including the four GreenHunter Projects. That's enough to power 600,000 to 1 million homes _ more than in all of Montana.
``By 2015, 30,000 megawatts of new power will be needed in the western United States. We want to be able to provide for that with the energy we create in Montana,'' said Tom Kaiserski with the state Department of Commerce.
For now, Montana ranks 15th nationwide for wind power with 147 megawatts on line _ a fraction of the 5,000 megawatts the state could produce by 2030 under favorable conditions, Flowers said.
With the changes to the GreenHunter project and the indefinite delays facing GreenHunter's three other proposals, the most promising major wind prospect in Montana is a 300-megawatt project near Shelby, to be built at the same time as a new transmission line from Montana to Canada.
But the line, known as the Montana Alberta Tie Line, has also drawn opposition from environmentalists worried it could transport electricity from greenhouse gas-producing coal plants.
Patrick Judge, of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said a review of Montana's new and pending power plants showed more than 5,500 megawatts from coal _ almost three times the state's tally for proposed wind farms.
``The overwhelming share of megawatts being proposed right now is coal-based, it's not wind,'' he said.