July 19, 2018

After riding nearly 500 miles thus far on my touring bicycle from Billings to Dupuyer, Montana, I have seen countless ranches, sherbet sunsets, mountain ranges, and other features that make Montana the “last best place,” as many Montanans claim. However, one important piece of the Montana landscape is often overlooked. The transmission lines that connect Montana’s energy to the grid. From the beginning of the coal and oil booms in Montana decades ago to the more recent implementation of renewable energy, transmission lines represent the opportunities available due to energy consumption in the United States.

Montana is well known for its energy resources such as coal, hydroelectric power, exceptional wind potential, crude oil, natural gas, and other energy-specific resources. Due to Montana’s low population, the state’s demand is actually lower than its production, making it is a net exporter of electricity. Because of this electricity production surplus, transmission lines sprawl across the state and extend to established out-of-state markets. In order to transition away from coal and other fossil fuels to cleaner renewable energy, changes towards transmission lines and electricity production must be made.

In Montana, a critical transmission line runs from Colstrip to Seattle, WA making it a major resource to export electricity from Montana to the electricity-hungry west coast. I first experienced the Colstrip line outside of Steve Charter’s ranch near Shepherd in the beginning of my journey. This same structure that provides electricity to homes is glared at by many as an eyesore to the landscape. On the contrary, I was pleased to see the line that ultimately leads to Montana’s stronghold in western energy markets. The line is part of the Bonneville Power Administration and is partially owned and operated by Montana’s largest utility, Northwestern Energy. Colstrip is a dual-mouth plant where the coal mined is also burned at the same location and is the second largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi, making it a great emergence point for a transmission line.

When considering the transition to renewables, states already established on the transmission line will be looking to continue receiving electricity from Montana. California and Washington are on the forefront of adopting clean energy standards and benchmarks for the United States. Due to the progressive nature of California, Washington, and its neighbors, there is no question that the development of Montana’s renewable energy will find west coast markets. While the initial infrastructure has been established by fossil fuel-generated electricity, renewable energy systems cannot be constructed ideally located next to transmission lines. Wind turbines need to be placed where land and wind is available and the same goes respectively for photovoltaic solar projects. Due to the selective siting of renewable energy that must be linked to the grid to be distributed, many new power lines will have to extend to what are often rural areas. When crossing over rural land, rights of public and private land typically come into question.

Land ownership has remained a sense of pride in Montana, and a transmission line running through a piece of land may not be appealing to many landowners. I have seen firsthand what mining and mineral rights can do to landowners, and the immediate disruption of metal infrastructure on visible land has similar effects. By riding a bike through Montana, I am able to appreciate aspects that would otherwise be missed through a vehicle such as a car or motorhome. For example, most fences are equipped with barbed wire and have posted signs reading NO TRESPASSING or PRIVATE LAND STAY OFF fairly often, affirming a proprietor that does not want his or her land messed with. That being said, receiving support for additional infrastructure to be built in one of the most majestic areas in the United States continues to be a conflicting topic.

Aside from the eye burden caused by the lines, they can also be disruptive to wildlife such as birds, and construction and maintenance can bring unwanted disruptions to a quiet area. While more transmission lines are required to link renewable energy to the grid, existing power line capacity will be freed up due to coal-fired plants going offline. In addition, there are options to upgrade the capacity of existing lines to be able to carry more electricity. This is very beneficial for a line like the BPA Colstrip-Seattle line that has seen incredible population increases leading to higher electrical demand on the west coast over the past decade. Since electricity generated from coal and other fossil fuels will be declining and likely replaced with renewable energy, additional large capacity lines and towers will not have to be placed next to the current structures, leaving landscapes the same in many areas.

Other options for implementing renewables to the grid are concepts of net metering and distributed generation, which often go hand in hand. When homeowners install something like solar panels on their roof, they are producing their own energy during the day. The sun is normally shining and the panels are producing energy. When the home is either producing a surplus of electricity or it needs to draw electricity from the grid, the utility company associated with the home comes into play. Some homes, including the home of Matt Frank who has been one of my instructors on this course, can solely rely on the production of their own systems for energy; however, this often requires implementing efficiency techniques such as new appliances, passive heating, and new light bulbs. While this is not always the case, others are able to buy electricity from the grid when they need it and then sell or receive credit from their excess electricity to the utility at rates that are influenced by the instantaneous demand. This is called net metering, which has created a challenges for utility companies across the United States. Since homes are creating their own electricity, they are less reliant on utilities. Then the moment comes where heavy cloud cover rolls in and solar panels are not providing adequate electricity for the home. Now the homes with panels rely on the utility to essentially back them up, creating a large, instantaneous spike in electricity demand. This requires utilities to be prepared for large spikes, meanwhile most of the time they are not providing the same level of electricity to its customers. Basically, net metering has made residential renewable energy generation feasible, but has created issues for utilities, requiring them to adapt very quickly to rapidly changing electricity markets.

As prices of owning photovoltaic panels continue to decline drastically, more and more homes are installing solar panels on their roofs across the nation, just like my instructor. This has created a potential energy backup plan due to the distribution of electricity generation across regions. The idea works with renewable energies due to the fact that different areas are experiencing different weather conditions. While it may be a stormy day with dense cloud cover in one area, one hundred miles away the sun may be shining and solar panels are at peak generation. Those homes will be selling their excess electricity back to the utility which it can then send to the homes struggling with low solar generation for the day. In many cases the quick, backup electricity that homes need when their renewables are lacking comes from burning coal. The distributed generation network helps eliminate the need for the backup aspect of fossil fuels. With the help of the grid, renewables can become more reliant through self-production and distributed generation.

Acceptance of grid adaptations is pivotal to separating energy production and fossil fuels. While covering Montana’s landscape with more man-made products such as transmission lines is not ideal, there are methods such as increasing the capacity of lines and residential generation, including distributed generation that can reduce the amount of additional power lines. What may seem to be an eyesore or burden at first, can easily be adopted. I see this as being similar to wind turbine farms in Montana. Initially, many Montanans thought of the turbines as ugly and unnatural, but now they represent a greener future that will lead to a longer appreciation of the Montana landscapes that I have been able to experience throughout the past couple weeks. I believe that this can be achieved with transmission lines. The same hope that I have while seeing wind turbines creating clean energy and transmission lines carrying renewable energy truly represents the economic opportunity that will remain to be part Montana’s history for years to come.