In 2005 Montana’s first wind farm, operated by Invenergy Services, took shape among the rolling hills of Judith Gap. Our group was given the opportunity to visit the farm as a quick day trip while staying in nearby Harlowton. With unloaded bikes, we traveled 13 miles north to where the ninety turbines of the Judith Gap Wind Farm rise high into the air over green meadows. Each able to produce around 1,500 kilowatts, they yield energy which is then contracted to Montana’s largest utility, Northwestern Energy. For all those in favor of finding alternative energy sources, one would hope that wind could have the ability to open many doors of opportunity for renewable energy in Montana, a way to veer far from coal. Coal has lasting effects on surrounding towns, polluting drinking water and undermining ranch land.
We made sure to get started on the road early, hopefully avoiding chances of wind; it generally isn’t blowing in the morning, but usually picks up later. Lucky for us, it played out in our favor and we had a pleasant outing, arriving just as the turbines started to turn for the day. This is in comparison to other days where we didn’t quite luck out in the same way, often facing headwinds that varied from a mild breeze to intense gusts, forcing us to lean into it to prevent from swerving into the grassy landscape that parallels the road. With our experiences, it’s hard to believe that wind wouldn’t be an efficient and abundant energy source in Montana.
Invenergy is a privately owned (and primarily renewable) energy producer with about 35 sites in the United States and even more internationally, generating energy through wind, solar, and thermal, and even trying to make progress with the battery storage obstacle. During our visit we were able to both explore the wind farm system as well as understand the center of operations that control the turbines and the energy that is produced.
Our guidance through this day came from the facilities manager, Michael, a man with experience in the wind energy production business. After a similar job elsewhere, he relocated to Montana to begin work with Invenergy. However, he expressed that this job was not taken only because it was familiar, but because he can appreciate the opportunities that develop from a rural lifestyle. While experiencing enjoyment from what Montana has to offer with recreational activities, Michael also cherishes the isolation of wide open space, the “big sky.” That, I can understand. I went into this day expecting compelling conversations and similar views in regard to the other half of our course that supports the topic of energy… climate change. But when climate change was mentioned, Michael confessed that he was not convinced. Maybe I was wrong to assume that a manager of a renewable producer would consider the effects that humans and fossil fuels have on the environment. He could admit that things are changing, but things change all the time, right? It’s a perspective we hear often from climate change skeptics.
So why was he working so hard to find success with wind energy while coal is still more reliable? As he explained, energy prices in Montana are inexpensive, and Northwestern is getting a good deal with their energy and transmission. It’s all about the economics. And that is what I realized goes for Michael too. Of course a steady income is top priority for some, so maybe it’s too idealistic to think that everyone would be motivated to pursue these projects because it is simply good. It’s hard to look past the disconnect between the motivation and the end goal. But if that motivation does happen to be money, Michael and Northwestern have found themselves an effective and inexpensive opportunity. Simply shown in data from the Public Service Commission, a board of individuals who regulate services such as energy and transportation, costs of energy production for Northwestern energy (per megawatt-hour) is less than half at Judith Gap than it is at Colstrip, the largest coal producer for the company. Not only that, but when considering the initial build, maintenance, and costs to operate the business, it is still significantly lower than coal, and continuing to decline as technologies advance.