One new transmission line under construction will carry renewable power as far as Las Vegas

Having good wind resources is only part of what’s needed for a thriving wind industry. Another essential component is transmission: wind farms just aren’t useful if there’s no way to get the power from the farm into the city. One state grappling with this issue is Montana, which has abundant wind resources but has struggled to build enough power lines to put them to use. That’s not to say that Montana doesn’t have a strong desire to embrace renewable energy (it does), but first the state must confront several daunting challenges when trying to complete new transmission projects. For starters, there’s a need to limit the extent to which power lines pass through protected forests and national parks; second, many landowners are hesitant to have lines built on their property when the majority of the power won’t even be used in their state; third, Montana is huge, so transmission projects are lengthy and thus expensive.

Despite this, the Energy Promotion and Development Division (EPDD) of the Montana Department of Commerce recently provided updates on six transmission projects currently under construction in the state. They include lines connecting wind farms in geographically remote areas of the state, and will also link Montana’s renewable energy sources to electricity markets as far away as Las Vegas. When built, the lines will add 12,000 megawatts (MW) of electrical capacity to the grid, nearly all of which will be used for clean energy projects. And in Montana, “clean energy” usually means wind. It has the fifth greatest wind potential of any state and about 50 wind projects in varying stages of planning and permitting. The Montana Department of Commerce says that it would like to achieve 10,000 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity in the near future, up from the 386 MW that are currently installed, in order to help meet the US Department of Energy’s goal of producing 20% of our energy from wind by 2030.

One interesting aspect of Montana’s recent push to boost its grid is an effort by the Western Governors’ Association (chaired by Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer) to fast-track the difficult and time-consuming permitting process for building new transmission. According to Schweitzer, that effort comes out of a desire to get renewable power on the grid, and do it quickly. He’s quoted by one source as saying, “You can’t develop alternative energy sources until you get transmission. You can’t put electricity in a bottle and send it down the river.” The permitting process for building transmission is typically much longer and more difficult than the permitting process for building wind farms. According to the Department of Energy’s National Transmission Grid Study, major transmission projects often experience up to 10 years or more of delays before they can be built. As a result, there are hundreds of wind projects around the country, waiting on new transmission lines to proceed. This fact makes any effort to streamline the transmission process highly commendable.

The US transmission grid, which our own Department of Energy finds to be antiquated, will need significant additions and improvements over the next decade to accommodate renewable energy and improve reliability. Luckily, Montana is one state helping lead the way to solve this nationwide problem.