Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer Talks About His Plans for Wind Power

What’s the biggest problem with alternative energy?

The simplest explanation is that burning coal and oil for electricity generation is supported by existing infrastructure, while clean energy sources like wind energy and solar aren’t. Specifically alternative energy has a built-in hurdle — how do you store solar power when the sun isn’t shining and how do you transmit wind energy when the wind isn’t blowing?

Some nascent technologies may provide the answer. But by and large, the storage and transmission technology that would make these energy sources more feasible doesn’t exist.

In Montana, one of the country’s windiest places, Gov. Brian Schweitzer is trying to solve that transmission and storage challenge by adopting the "build it and they will come" approach. Wind farms are popping up across the state, and Schweitzer believes it’s only a matter of time before the technology follows.

Schweitzer is passionate about transforming Montana into a renewable energy leader. In a recent interview, he discussed this and other issues important to Montana’s future, such as the Real ID Act and how to foster a new generation of students who are interested in math, science and engineering.

You want Montana to be a leader in alternative fuels and energy sources. How do you make those goals a reality?

According to recent studies, Montana has the second-best wind energy resources in the country and some of the best on the planet. We have 30 percent of the coal in America — 10 percent of the coal on the planet. We’re increasing our oil production at the fastest rate in the country. We have many energy resources that can be cleaner and greener. Whether we’re talking about capturing carbon dioxide from existing coal-fired plants or creating new kinds of coal-capturing devices for new kinds of plants, we’re excited about developing our coal. And we’re excited about developing our wind.

The most important thing is we have to develop storage technology. We actually have an unlimited supply of energy, whether it be tidal, wind or solar. But the wind isn’t blowing all the time, and the sun isn’t shining all the time. As consumers, we demand electricity when we want it, not just when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. So that means the most important technology of our time — and for the next decade — will be storage technology.

To give an example, if every car, light truck and SUV in America had a battery that could get the first 40 miles on a charge before it switched to another source of energy, we could eliminate two-thirds of the oil we import. Those cars exist today. What we don’t have is the resolve to buy those cars and put them on the highways.

Wind farms are booming in Montana. But isn’t the cost of building transmission lines always brought up as a reason not to build them? How do you overcome that objection?

Part of the solution to transmission is storage. We need to build more transmission so we can get the electricity to those who are using it. But understand — we build transmission for peak demand. For example, in California at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday they have peak demand. But by Friday night at 2 a.m., they’re only using half as much electricity. So if we could build a transmission system that had storage on the other end — so that consumers with batteries in their cars could either be buying electricity in the middle of the night or selling it back into the grid at 10:00 in the morning — we would need less transmission.

We do need to add to our transmission capacity, and that’s why Montana leads the entire world in digitally cataloging our wildlife corridors. So when people are deciding where they’re going to build transmission lines, we already know where the antelope, bears and elk need to move — and we build those transmission lines so that we’ll be able to maintain our quality of life and a transmission system that delivers Montana wind power to California cars.

By Chad Vander Veen