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Wind Power Makes Money from Thin Air

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

People who stop for a moment in central and eastern Montana will hear money whooshing by them. Wind energy can provide Montana’s next great export as renewable energy demand increases. As states require utilities to provide more and more energy from renewable resources, a comprehensive, Montana can capitalize on that increasing demand. A Montana plan for capturing that wind, converting it to energy, and transmitting it to market will bring Montana jobs and money to Montanan landowners.

I. Montana can tap its vast, undeveloped wind energy resources.

Montanans tell stories about eastern Montana wind shaking cars, cutting through wind breakers, or picking tents off their stakes. That wind reflects opportunity to convert Montana’s wind into electricity. Experts confirm that potential.

Montana’s high wind speeds make it among the top five states for wind energy potential.[1] But the twelve states that produced 80 % of the United States’ wind power do not include Montana.[2]

The Department of Energy has mapped potentials for wind energy production across the United States.[3] It predicts a large role for Montana in producing future wind energy.[4] That role provides Montana a brief window of opportunity to make money out of thin air.

II. Central and eastern landowners will make money renting their land to export wind energy.

Generating a new source for bringing money into Montana will grow Montana’s economy for decades.

Imagine Montana as an island and watch the money flowing out and the money flowing in. Money flows out to import most consumer goods: cars, trucks, boots, boats, computers, and hunting gear. Money flows in as Montana exports agriculture and forestry, mining, and tourists spend their money here.[5] Exporting another commodity will increase the amount of money flowing into Montana and will grow Montana’s internal economy.[6] Wind energy can do that.

III. States are increasing demand for renewable energy is increasing.

Demand for renewable energy is increasing as states require utilities to provide more and more energy from renewable sources. Montana can fill that gap with wind energy.

Currently, Montana requires utilities to purchase 15 % of their energy from renewable sources.[7] Montana can use its wind energy to reach its own benchmark easily, and it can sell excess renewable energy to neighboring states to help those states meet their own benchmarks.

In 2016, Oregon increased the proportion of renewable energy it required large utilities to provide. The prior law required large utilities to provide 25 % of their energy production from renewables by 2025; the 2016 law increased the benchmark to 50 % by 2040.[8]

Washington also requires utilities to produce fifteen percent of their power from renewable resources—similar to Montana’s standard.[9] It may well follow Oregon’s lead.

If Montana waits too long, other sources will fill that demand for renewable energy. As renewable energy supply increases, price will decrease.

IV. New direct-current technology for transmitting wind energy will take that wind energy to market.

Recent breakthroughs in high-voltage, direct-current electrical transmission make Montana wind power even more competitive. Transmission lines already run from Colstrip to Seattle and Portland, but the volume of electricity decreases when transmitting it that far.[10] New technology can decrease those costs.

Montana’s wind energy sector has always produced less energy because of its distance from market. Transmitting electricity over power lines consumes some of the electricity it transmits.[11] For example, a conventional, one-thousand-mile transmission line could lose 12 to 25 percent of its power.[12]

Because hundreds of miles separates eastern Montana from energy-hungry cities, Montana’s wind energy lose significant energy in transmission. About 950 miles separates Miles City from Seattle. If a company seeks a 10 % profit, and if it loses 12 to 25 % of its product during transmission, it will seek cheaper, closer alternatives. Cutting-edge, high-voltage, direct-current transmission lines can change the business calculations.

V. Modern technology uses direct current to decrease energy losses to transmission.

Engineers generally transmit electricity using alternating current or direct current. When the United States was developing its power grid in the 1880s,[13] Thomas Edison advocated using direct current, but in those days, direct current cost far more electricity to transmit.[14] Nikola Tesla’s preference for alternating current prevailed, and the United States’ electrical grid now uses alternating current.[15]

New technology has resurrected Edison’s preferred direct current for long-distance transmission.[16] Modern converters at both ends can change the alternating current to direct current for transmission and then change it back at the destination.[17] To transmit the same electricity one-thousand-mile, modern technology reduces electricity transmission costs from 12 to 25 percent, for alternating current, to 6 to 8 percent for direct current.[18] The converters cost money, but over these distances, the cost savings pays for itself.[19]

China, Brazil, India, Australia, and New York are already using this technology.[20] By expanding it to bring Montana’s wind energy to market, Montana can make its wind-generated electricity more competitive against local sources.

VI. Wind energy grows jobs, reduces water use, and reduces pollutants.

In addition to the economic benefits that wind energy will bring to Montana, developing Montana’s wind energy portfolio will both grow jobs and help preserve Montana’s priceless natural resources.

By 2050, wind energy will support 600,000 jobs to manufacture, install, maintain and support wind turbines in the United States.[21] It could save 260 billion gallons of water that other electrical sources would have used.[22] It will reduce greenhouse gases and help slow the climate change that is melting the glaciers in Glacier National Park.


Although money does not grow on trees, Montana can make money out of thin air by encouraging wind turbines in central and eastern Montana. Demand is increasing in Washington and Oregon, and new technologies are driving down the price of taking electricity to market. Montana has an opportunity to spur wind energy, to import more money into Montana for landowners, to decrease water use, to slow climate change, and to grow local economies. No other single idea would benefit Montanans more.


[1] Wind in Montana, Montana Department of Environmental Quality (last visited July 2, 2017),

[2] Today in Energy, U.S. Energy Information Administration (Apr. 15, 2014), at

[3] Potential Wind Capacity, U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (July 29, 2016), at

[4] Daniel Wood & Paul Lester, New Interactive Map Shows Big Potential for America’s Wind Energy Future, (Mar. 31, 2015), available at

[5] See Barbara Wagner, Chief Economist, What is Montana’s Most Important Industry? 3, Montana Department of Labor & Industry Research & Analysis Bureau (July 2014), available at

[6] See John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money 37-38 (First Harvest/Hartcourt Brace edition 1964) (“The National Dividend . . . depends, in some sense, on net output;—on the net addition, that is to say, to the resources of the community available for consumption or for retention as capital stock, due to the economic activities and sacrifices of the current period, after allowing for the wastage of the stock of real capital existing at the commencement of the period.”); id. at 90-91 (“The amount that the community spends on consumption obviously depends (i) partly on the amount of its income, (ii) partly on the other objective attendant circumstances, and (iii) partly on the subjective needs and the psychological propensities and habits of the individuals composing it and the principles on which the income is divided between them (which may suffer modification as output is increased).”).

[7] MCA § 69-3-2004(b)(4), available at

[9] RCW § 19.285.040(f)(2)(a)(iii), available at

[10] Puget Sound Energy, Four Colstrip Transmission System partners announce agreement to evaluate potential upgrade to 500kV lines to accommodate renewables (Sept. 2, 2008),

[11] Ryan Hammerly, Direct Current Transmission Lines, Stanford University (Oct. 22, 2010), available at

[12] Patrick J. Kiger, High-Voltage DC Breakthrough Could Boost Renewable Energy, National Geographic News (Dec. 7, 2012), available at

[13] Allison Lantero, The War of the Currents: AC vs. DC Power, U.S. Department of Energy (Nov. 18, 2014), available at

[14] Kiger, High-Voltage DC Breakthrough Could Boost Renewable Energy.

[15] Id.

[16] Hammerly, Direct Current Transmission Lines (“Direct Current offers an alternative to the conventional AC transmission that cures many of AC’s defects … [for a]bove-ground connections exceeding 800 km in length.”).

[17] Clean Line Energy Partners, How HVDC Works, (diagram) (last visited July 6, 2017).

[18] Kiger, High-Voltage DC Breakthrough Could Boost Renewable Energy.

[19] Hammerly, Direct Current Transmission Lines (“while the fixed cost of DC transmission, due to transformer stations, is much greater than the fixed cost for AC transmission, the per-kilometer cost for DC lines is significantly less. Therefore, a break-even line length exists beyond which DC becomes the cheaper choice. For above-ground cables, the break-even length is on the order of 800 kilometers.”).

[20] Kiger, High-Voltage DC Breakthrough Could Boost Renewable Energy; Hammerly, Direct Current Transmission.

[21] Wood & Lester, New Interactive Map Shows Big Potential for America’s Wind Energy Future.

[22] Id.

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