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Wind Stakeholder Interview: Montana Rancher and Professor

Gordon G. Brittan, Jr.

Gordon G. Brittan, Jr., rancher and Regents Professor of Philosophy, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana

Wind Stakeholder Interview: Montana Rancher and Professor

Date: 11/1/2002

Location: Bozeman, MT

"Before the advent of Rural Electric Associations, farmers and ranchers in this part of the country depended on windmills to provide electricity. I like to think we're returning to our roots and the idea of self-sufficiency by installing small wind electric systems." Gordon G. Brittan, Jr., rancher and Regents Professor of Philosophy, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana.

Q. Tell us a little about yourself and your background in wind energy development.

A. When I first came to Montana in the early 1970s, strip mining of coal and the building of large (600-MW) generating plants to burn at least part of it were the most important public policy issues facing the state. As the token humanist in programs funded by the Montana Committee for the Humanities, I was invited to participate in many public discussions of the issues. Listening to what other, better informed participants were saying, I came to the conclusion that coal-fired generation had a number of environmental downsides that could be largely offset in Montana by wind energy. In 1984, we decided to install a 65-kilowatt (kW) Danish wind turbine on our ranch, form a company to develop a novel soft airfoil design, and start a campaign for renewables. Although the wind turbine is still supplying enough electricity to power 15-20 average Montana homes a year, we lost a significant amount of money on the development of a novel design, and after almost 20 years of campaigning, we still do not have a megawatt of installed and viable wind energy generation in Montana.

Q. Can you expand on your comment "I like to think we're returning to our roots and the idea of self-sufficiency by installing small wind electric systems."

A. Many people think that using wind to generate electricity is a new idea in the American West. They're wrong. Until the advent of rural electrification, roughly 10% of the West's electricity was produced using small turbines; at one time, as many as 50,000 were installed on individual farms and ranches. The most successful designers and manufacturers of these turbines (Marcellus and Joe Jacobs) came from Montana. So, installing relatively small units on our places is a return to the past, particularly in Montana. I also think that the use of distributed generation systems (as in the Scandinavian countries) instead of large concentrations of turbines in wind farms is more aesthetically acceptable, and it reduces the risk of both a wind "drought" and technology failure at a particular location.

Q. Why do you think the time is right for wind development in Montana? What are the real issues that are preventing Montana from realizing its wind development potential?

A. The time is right because a reliable cost-effective technology is now available; because deregulation in the state has opened up opportunities for non-utility suppliers; because demand for electricity in the Northwest is increasing at a time when, owing to environmental concerns, the amount of hydroelectric power is being reduced; and because the installation of new, large, central thermal plants represents a risk that utility stockholders and state ratepayers are no longer willing to take.

Thanks in part to federal and state tax incentives, there was a "wind rush" in this country in the 1970s. Livingston, Montana, tried to establish itself as the "test bench of the industry." A number of prototypes were set up; all failed. Many Montanans became disenchanted. When reliable, for the most part Danish, technology became available, it was not cost-competitive in a declining wholesale market. We signed our first contract with the utility in 1984 for $.0567/kilowatt-hour (kWh); 10 years later it was down to $.0225/kWh. Now that we have a reliable and cost-competitive technology, the main obstacle is the utility (although there is also a residual hostility to turbines in the Montana landscape, particularly in scenic parts of the state). A combination of deregulation in Montana and the sale of its transmission and distribution assets has led the utility to be very cautious on venturing out on what, for it, are uncharted waters. But a number of us are working with it to move ahead on adding wind to the default supply portfolio. In fact, the utility took the lead on putting 150 MW of wind up for bid, and only a very contentious and somewhat controversial bidding process let to its being overturned.

Q. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has estimated that of the 20 gigawatts (GW) that could be developed in the West over the next 10 years, Montana's portion would be almost 4 GW. What steps are necessary to achieve that vision?

A. Future development will be tied to demand, and it is difficult to predict demand (and price) over a 10-year period. I doubt 4 GW of new wind energy will be developed. My own short-term (1-5 year) goals for Montana are much closer to 350 megawatts (MW): 150 MW to be added to the utility's default-supply portfolio, 150 MW to be sold to out-of-state consumers, and 50 MW to be sold (or net-metered) locally or applied to new end-uses (i.e. fuel cell production).

The utility, working together with the Public Service Commission, needs to make qualifying facility and net-billing/metering contracts available. I think that it would be in everybody's best interest if at the same time, the utility would re-bid 150 MW of wind energy for its portfolio. A 10-MW project that incorporates the newest technology (turbines larger than 1 MW) needs to be in place as soon as possible. Such a project would be of enormous value in convincing the nay-sayers of the feasibility of large-scale wind energy development. As a result of the proposed re-bid and on-going negotiations to sell power out of state, we could easily see another 300 MW of capacity installed within the next 2 years. This would be far short of the 4 GW, but it would represent a huge step forward.

Q. What role do agricultural interests in Montana have to play in wind development?

A. Agricultural producers in Montana have at least three reasons to promote wind energy development. First, many of them use large amounts of electricity to power sprinkler irrigation systems. They face near-term large rate increases at a time when the agricultural economy is already hard-pressed. If these producers, either individually or through co-ops, were to use wind to supply their own energy, they could control their costs, because with wind, there will never be a "fuel" cost increase. Second, almost all producers are looking to augment existing revenue streams. Locating wind turbines on agricultural land constitutes a new "cash crop" that does not interfere with existing operations. Third, particularly in some parts of the state, the extraction of non-renewable fuels (coal and coal bed methane gas) puts real pressure on local (and always short) water supplies. Anything to offset this pressure is welcome.

Q. What role does the Montana State University (MSU) policy center play in the energy debate in Montana?

A. The Burton K. Wheeler Center at MSU takes up a broad spectrum of public policy issues. Energy (in various forms) is at the center of many of these issues, therefore, we have devoted a good deal of attention to it. Four years ago, we organized a conference on coal development in the Tongue River Basin, 2 years ago a conference on utility de-regulation, this year a conference on coal bed methane development. On January 18, 2003, we are working with the Montana Public Service Commission to organize a conference on a number of electrical energy related issues (default portfolio composition, federal-state interaction on energy issues, etc.), and on May 15, 2003, a conference on new forms of generation, increased transmission, and creative end-uses. We hope to work closely with Wind Powering America on at least the second of these two conferences. I think it is fair to say that energy issues are still near the very top of the state agenda today.

Q. What do you think the most important activities are that Wind Powering America can do to move the wind agenda forward in Montana.

A. First, make your expertise (Ron Lehr and others) available to help the utility move forward on outstanding qualifying facility and net-metering issues as well as appropriate portfolio percentage issues. Second, do what you've been doing so far (very successfully): organize, sponsor, and help fund conferences and discussions at which Larry Flowers can talk about what others around the country and the region are doing.

This information was last updated on August 02, 2011