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As a long-time supporter of renewable energy, I'm compelled to take issue with the position of our state's top elected officials that wind energy virtually guarantees a panacea of win/win opportunities for Montana.

Questioning large-scale wind and transmission development often results in charges of being against both wind and jobs. This is unfortunate because it's often not true, discourages public involvement and inhibits the questioning of positions held by important public figures. And questions need to be asked.

Recent public statements have convinced me that Montana's leaders should start taking a more realistic view of our state's wind-energy future and stop raising expectations to unrealistic, even unobtainable levels.

A recent claim made for Montana wind energy is that it's low cost and won't increase electricity rates. While it's true that Judith Gap wind energy meets this standard, it would be a mistake to assume that future wind development will.

There are several reasons for this. Possibly the most important is that virtually all Montana wind power will be exported to out-of-state markets. (We already export more than 50 percent of our electricity). If, as expected, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decides to spread transmission costs over entire regions rather than charging only those markets getting the power, Montana rate payers would be required to subsidize out-of-state transmission of Montana wind power. Rates would go up. In fact, FERC regulations would require they go up.

Actual experience with the cost of wind power is also often at odds with claims that consumers won't pay higher rates. This from Minnesota Public Radio:

"The cost of electricity is up sharply for many rural Minnesota customers, partly because utilities are losing money on electricity generated from wind."

Minnkota Power " buying energy at an average price of $0.45 from wind developers and selling it to the surplus market at about $.02 ... " about a $20 million loss."

And the kicker, ..."That loss was covered by a surcharge added to electric bills."

There are no guarantees that wind power will be "low cost" for Montana's rate payers.

When it comes to jobs and the economic benefits of wind development in Montana, generalities are too often used to make the case: Wind development "will create good paying jobs," "spur economic development" and "result in millions of dollars of investment."

Reality isn't so kind. Among other examples, a recent Wisconsin experience with transmission construction and jobs is instructive, and makes clear the need for objective assessments and analysis:

What kind of jobs? Are most of the jobs good- paying construction and technical jobs or minimum-wage service jobs? Who gets the majority of them, Montana workers or workers from other states employed by out-of-state contractors? Are they permanent or temporary? Are they new jobs or jobs for existing workers? How much profit from wind and transmission development will accrue to Montanans and Montana-owned businesses rather than flow out of state? And, how many wind -project dollars will actually stay in Montana? (In Butte they, still, say; "The Company got the gold, Butte got the shaft.") Deja vu all over again?

Paid consultants will produce even more reports for their clients showing that wind energy will be a jobs and economic development bonanza for Montana. Caution is advised. For instance, the Montana DEQ projects that the impact on jobs of NorthWestern Energy's billion dollar Mountain States Transmission Intertie project would be "insignificant."

Montana wind is a valuable resource and will play an important role in our state's energy future. But it's not nirvana, and over-selling its benefits to Montana's economy, job growth and Montana ratepayers should stop.

John Vincent is a Montana Public Service commissioner. He represents southwest Montana on the commission.


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