New in PERC Reports: Moving the Wind

by Jonathan Fahey

Montana is a big, beautiful playground for the wind. It howls down the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains from the north and west, and flies south and east across the empty plains of the eastern part of the state. But that Montana wind turns just 375 megawatts worth of wind turbines. That’s 30 percent as much as comparatively calm and crowded New York State, even though Montana’s strong and consistent wind has the potential to produce almost nine times as much electricity as New York’s.

Montana even lags its windy neighbors, North Dakota and Wyoming. The reason is location. Montana is the extreme example of the problem with renewable power in the United States and worldwide: Renewable natural resources often exist far from people who need electricity, and it is expensive to build or upgrade transmission lines to move it to them. And in the lower 48 states, Montana is just about as remote as you can get.

“We could be the wind energy leader of the West,” says Chantel McCormick, Senior Energy Development Specialist for the State of Montana. “All that stands in the way is transmission.” The problem is that there’s much that stands in the way of actually building that transmission—including, of course, cost. Wind and solar are already expensive compared with the main sources of electricity in the United States—coal, natural gas, and uranium. Add the cost of building transmission lines (and the cost of the electricity lost in transit), and building in places like Montana just isn’t worth it, even with subsidies for green power and mandates that specify how much green power states must use every year.

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