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Study bumps Montana's ranking to No. 2 for wind potential

Study bumps Montana’s ranking to No. 2 for wind potential(By Linda Halstead-Acharya of The Gazette)Anyone who has spent any time in Montana could hardly be surprised by the

findings.A Harvard study, released last month, puts the Big Sky State in a tie with

Kansas - and second only to Texas - for having the greatest potential in

the nation for wind power.Coded by a deep blue color on the map, the report shows Montana so rich in

wind that it has the potential to produce 4,700 terawatt hours of

wind-generated electricity, a whopping 370 times the state's current total

retail electricity sales.Ross Keogh, a research analyst for Sagebrush Energy, a renewable energy

development company that focuses on smaller-scale projects, explains that

one terawatt hour is the equivalent of 1 million megawatt hours."They're assuming a huge potential," he said, adding that he found no fault

with the model. "We have so much more energy in the wind blowing across

Eastern Montana than is buried in the coal below."While the figures boggle the mind, both the authors of the study and local

wind experts quickly dispel the notion that wind potential equates to

available wind power."A very small portion of what is possible ends up being doable," said Van

Jamison, vice president of strategic operations for Gaelectric, an Irish

wind-development company with an office in Great Falls. Jamison headed up

the Montana Energy Office from 1980 to 2000.Jamison describes the study as "fascinating reading" and "provocative." Yet

he also views its projections as a "bookend" against which future

development could be measured."We could even be the No. 1 state in terms of potential," he said. "But if

there's absolutely no production, we'd be the most underachieving state in

the world. That's where we sit today. We've got that choice."Gov. Brian Schweitzer is less taken by the new ranking - "Down to category

three wind (averaging between 14.3 and 15.7 mph), Montana is number one

over Texas," he said - than the state's recent track record in wind energy

development.In 2003, the state was putting out a mere 1 megawatt of wind power. By

2008, that figure had jumped to 271 megawatts. He credits recent

legislation with providing the tools for development."The bottom line is, Montana has increased its wind portfolio at the

fastest rate in the country," he said.Transmission bottleneckRhyno Stinchfield, CEO of Billings-based Montana Wind Resources, doesn't

question the study's estimates."Montana has been ranked No. 5," he said. "That being said, the top five

are very close to each other."Stinchfield agrees that attaining the study's projection of capacity is not

realistic, but he said he knows of half a dozen large wind projects under

consideration in the state."Even if only one-third of them happen, we're talking 1,000 megawatts of

wind power, easy," he said. That's nearly four times what Montana is

currently producing.By quick calculation, he figures that 100 megawatts of wind would amount to

$2 billion in construction and tens of thousands of jobs. A recent study

from the Center for American Progress projects 16.7 jobs for every $1

million spent on clean-energy projects.Stinchfield estimates that development is four to 10 years off. Like others

in the industry, he cites the state's limited transmission system as a key

obstacle to additional wind development. Yet progress on that front, too,

is beginning.Jamison cites Senate Bill 360 for opening the door to boosting

transmission. The bill, which passed in the most recent legislative

session, allows transmission upgrades, up to a certain voltage, in existing

rights of way without the need for additional environmental review."We don't want a proliferation of transmission lines across the state," he

said. "To my perspective, it makes the same kind of sense as energy

efficiency. It tends to minimize the environmental implications."And there are transmission line projects in the pipeline. One