Between Livingston and Billings the freeway passes through little towns easily forgotten, like Greycliff, a small community 10 miles east of Big Timber. The wind whips through there, which excites Rhyno Stinchfield. What’s an annoyance for some is opportunity to him.

“No wind farm yet has been built to take advantage of that Livingston-Big Timber wind tunnel,” Stinchfield said.

For the last half-decade, he’s been trying to change that with Greycliff Wind Prime LLC. With a business partner and the blessing of a local landowner he thinks he’s found the perfect spot. The turbines would be off the freeway, invisible to the passerby and near a transmission line that can take the power elsewhere.

But it’s not as simple as slapping together a turbine and plugging it in. There are government agencies and utility companies to dance with, laws to follow, contract terms to set. He’s on his third try to get the Republican-controlled Montana Public Service Commission to OK his plan, and this time is relying on a federal law to get the project approved. A lot of money has gone into this, and there’s no turning back.

The project, which has stalled for the moment, offers a case study in the challenges of developing wind power in Montana, a state where coal, natural gas and hydropower keep the lights on in most places.

According to data from the American Wind Energy Association, about 6.5 percent of the power Montana generates comes from wind. All of the neighboring states have higher percentages.

Wyoming is comparable, with wind holding an 8.9 percent share in what they generate. But Idaho and the Dakotas are miles ahead of Montana. North Dakota and Idaho hover around 18 percent. South Dakota has the second highest percentage of anywhere in the nation — 25.3 percent. Iowa is number one with 28.5 percent.

Montana generates 665 megawatts of wind power right now. That includes a 135 megawatt wind farm in Judith Gap, a string of smaller wind farms on the north side of the Crazy Mountains and a smattering of others spread throughout the state.

Wind farm developers have to get Montana’s electricity monopoly NorthWestern Energy on board. The utility has to agree to buy the power, or at least be forced by law to do so.

The company already generates about 282 megawatts of power from wind, including the large farm at Judith Gap and a 40 megawatt farm it owns called Spion Kop. The rest it buys from smaller producers like Stinchfield.

It’s not necessarily the company’s favorite power source, NorthWestern spokesman Butch Larcombe said. The utility gets more power from water — about 484 megawatts — and only slightly less from coal — about 222 megawatts.

“We’re not opposed to wind, but we are obligated to seek low cost power and that’s what our customers want,” Larcombe said. “Wind power from some of these producers isn’t the lowest cost.”

Because the power is intermittent — it’s only available when the wind blows and is hard to store — the utility needs to have a backup source that will be able to fill power needs when the wind doesn’t blow. The company has one natural gas plant and its major purpose is “to even out the ups and downs” from its wind sources, Larcombe said.

“If you add in that cost,” he said, “then the cost is significantly higher.”

Jeff Fox, Montana policy manager for the wind advocacy group Renewable Northwest, doubts that wind is more expensive.

“I’d love to see his numbers,” Fox said. “Montana’s wind resource is one of the best in the nation. It can produce some of the lowest cost energy to be found on the market.”

Fox also said wind can be quite reliable, adding that hydropower is also dependent on natural forces like river flows and snowpacks. He also noted that the utility is required to buy a certain amount of power from renewable sources, like wind and solar.

“Hopefully NorthWestern has made their energy resource decisions recognizing that they have responsibilities,” Fox said.

Those responsibilities come in the form of Montana’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. Starting this year, public utilities are required to get 15 percent of their power from renewable sources. Northwestern is already meeting that goal.

But, there’s a way that Rhyno Stinchfield and his attorney Michael Uda think they can force the utility to buy a little more wind based on a federal law.

The company’s first two attempts at the Public Service Commission were through a part of Montana’s Renewable Portfolio Standard that encourages small, locally owned renewable energy development. Called Community Renewable Energy Projects, they must be owned mostly by Montanans and the utility is required to get power from a certain amount of them.

Greycliff Wind Prime took a stab at becoming one of those a few years ago, winning a competitive bid from NorthWestern. Next they needed PSC approval, but the commission rejected their structure, saying they didn’t have enough local ownership. Their second attempt followed a similar narrative.

Now, they are trying to get in as a “qualifying facility,” a provision under federal law that would require the utility to buy power from them.

But even there, the PSC gets involved and has gummed up the works. The commission has a rule that requires projects larger than 3 megawatts seeking qualifying facility status to go through a competitive bidding process with the utility. That means they would have to prove they are the cheapest available option for that amount of power.

If they were smaller than 3 megawatts they’d get a contract nearly automatically.

Uda, the attorney for Greycliff, said that rule unfairly limits wind development. He said individual turbines could be 1 or 2 megawatts individually, meaning any wind farm approved under that rule would be rather small.

“Really you’re just basically saying we don’t want any wind projects,” he said.

He filed a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission claiming that rule is illegal. FERC agreed, and now Uda has asked the PSC to look at changing it.

Larcombe, of NorthWestern, said the petition filing is simply a way to get around a competitive bidding process.

“What we’re asking is that they go through a competitve solicitation process,” Larcombe said. “And they’re saying they don’t want to do that.”

Either way, the PSC decided earlier this month to open up the rule and take a look at it. Commission Chair Brad Johnson — who happens to be a Republican gubernatorial candidate — said the process will take a while and wouldn’t speculate what the commission would do.

“We just don’t know for sure what direction rule-making will go,” he said.

Greycliff has also filed to ask the PSC to set the terms of the contract, but Johnson said that was likely on hold until after the rule-making process.

Johnson, for one, shares some of the same concerns about wind that NorthWestern has. He thinks Montana should do more to use its coal reserves. He said they should be looking at ways to use that resource “more frequently and more effectively,” and that it’s more reliable than wind power.

“As we all know wind doesn’t blow all the time,” he said.

Stinchfield and Uda are still hopeful. It’s a little bit of a waiting game now, as the PSC plans to open up discussions on the rule.

Stinchfield remains positive he found the perfect place. Adding that wind farm could help with the intermittence problem, he said.

When the wind is silent in Judith Gap, it might be blowing in Greycliff, 70 miles south. And, if he gets to build his wind farm, some windmills might eventually be there to catch it.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.