The windy Montana plains are about to get a whole lot more sustainable. Following a recent notice of approval by Stillwater County officials, renewable developer Caithness Beaver Creek announced the construction of two wind farms near the state’s southern border. The farms, named Beaver Creek II and III, will provide power for thousands of households. The facilities will join a growing network of renewable developments in Montana, looking to cash in on the abundance of flowing air within the state.
We all know about the differences between fossil fuels and renewable energy options at this point in the sustainability conversation. What we don’t discuss as often, however, is what these two categories share in common. One of the more interesting similarities is that renewable energy sources, much like traditional ones, are limited in their own way.
Society could theoretically reach a point where no more coal is available for human extraction. While this isn’t the case with wind, renewable producers must still contend that flowing air is not present everywhere at the same rate, making turbine developments just as location-dependent as traditional sources.
Such a reality is what makes Montana such a hotbed for wind energy development. Warmer air from the Pacific coast makes its way east to the Rocky Mountains and is channeled down the opposite face and across the seemingly endless miles of Montana plains. Once operational, more of these regular gusts will find their way to the turbine fields, keeping the state powered sustainably.
Caithness Beaver Creek estimates each farm will have an expected capacity of 80 megawatts, enough power for 115,000 homes statewide. A local utility provider, NorthWestern Energy, will supply the generated energy using roughly four miles of high-voltage transmission cable. The wattage from a total of 48 turbines between Beaver Creek II and III will represent nearly 5% of all energy produced from renewable sources in Montana.
Caithness Beaver Creek will also use a battery system in each facility. The batteries will be able to store excess power generated during peak hours to remain available for area residents when the wind is in short supply. The system addresses the oft-reported inconsistency present in most wind farms.
This concept can be seen in several more recently developed wind and solar farms worldwide and is a first in the state of Montana. “It’s a unique utilization of the technologies,” said Caithness Beaver Creek’s Derrel Grant, who considers the facilities to be hybrid power-and-storage operations. “It might be new to Montana, but it’s not new to the industry.”
The operations will bring an essential boost to state and local economies beyond renewable energy. The farms will generate $48 million in property taxes over the next 10 years, with an estimated $1.3 million in impact fees paid by Caithness over the next three years.
The facilities will hire 175 workers in the short term and fill 16–20 full-time positions once Caithness Beaver Creek finishes construction.
“This starts to diversify Stillwater County’s tax base to where there’s not so much reliance on Stillwater [Mining Company],” said former county commissioner Mark Crago. He emphasized the importance of encouraging community divestment from fossil fuel industries whenever possible.
The project will cost Caithness $253 million in initial investments. This number is expected to increase pending the approval of two more Caithness operations, Beaver Creek I and Beaver Creek IV. Should all four facilities eventually open for business, nearly 230,000 Montana households will have their energy needs met.