Montana could be one of the top 3 wind energy producers in the nation -- it's currently ranked 22nd

Montanans are some of the biggest energy users in the country -- the state ranks ninth in the country in per capita energy consumption -- but most of Montana's energy dollars are literally going up in smoke.[1] Each year Montanans spend $4.7 billion on petroleum, natural gas, and coal.[2] Fossil fuels dominate the energy landscape, but Montana has a wealth of renewable energy resources that remain under-developed. The state ranks third in the nation when it comes to potential wind energy, has vast acres of cropland which could be used to produce advanced biofuels, and at least 15 potential geothermal sites. Montana could become a key supplier of renewable energy -- as well the tools to produce it.

Wind Energy

wind turbines

Credit: Schroeder, Dennis; NREL Staff Photographer

A single 150-megawatt wind project in Montana would produce 806 jobs and $81.2 million in local economic activity during construction

Montana has some of the best wind resources in the United States, ranking third among all states in commercial wind energy potential, according to the American Wind Energy Association.[3] A study from Harvard University pegs Montana's wind potential as second only to Texas, with accessible wind resources 370 times greater than the state's electricity usage.[4] Despite its tremendous potential, Montana trails far less windy states in generating wind energy, with just 386 megawatts (MW) of installed wind power capacity -- 22nd in the nation. However, an additional 2,300 MW of wind power are in development or have been announced.[5]

Development of just a small fraction of Montana's wind power potential would create enormous local economic benefits. In 2010, the wind industry supported 100 to 500 jobs in the state, directly or indirectly. According to results from a recent modeling analysis, a single 150-MW wind project in Montana would produce 806 jobs and $81.2 million in local economic activity during its construction phase. Operating the plant would generate 42 full-time-equivalent local jobs, $2.2 million in property taxes, and $6.1 million in economic benefit to the local economy each year.

If 25 such wind facilities were built in Montana (for 3,750 MW of wind power, an achievable goal), the result would be tens of thousands of construction jobs, 1,050 permanent jobs, $56 million in annual property tax revenue, and $152 million per year in ongoing positive economic impact on local communities.[6] At a market price of $60 per megawatt-hour (MWh), these projects could generate almost $750 million in annual sales.[7]

Biomass Energy and Cellulosic Ethanol

farmer and biofuels

Credit: Gretz, Warren - NREL Staff Photographer

An F-22 broke the sound barrier while running on a Montana-made biofuel blend

The resources Montana needs to launch a biopower industry are literally lying on the ground, in the form of agricultural leftovers such as wheat straw and corn stover. Montana has a small population but the seventh-largest acreage of cropland in the country.[8] The potential crop waste biomass feedstock in Montana amounts to almost 2.5 million tons each year, without including any new crops grown specifically to create energy. What can Montana do with 2.5 million tons of biomass? If all of it were devoted to producing cellulosic ethanol, the state could churn out more than 100 million gallons of biofuels each year, equivalent to one-fifth of all the gasoline used in Montana.[9], [10]

Using the Department of Energy's Jobs and Economic Development Impact (JEDI) model, analysis results show that a cellulosic ethanol plant producing 50 million gallons per year would generate 390 full-time jobs for the duration of its three-year construction phase and $111 million in local economic activity. Operation of the plant would create 231 long-term jobs and a total of almost $22 million annually in direct and indirect economic impact, plus $1.24 million in annual property taxes. Ten ethanol plants of that size, an achievable goal for Montana (if dedicated energy crops and/or forest residues are used as feedstock in addition to crop residue), would produce 2,310 jobs, $219 million in annual economic activity, and $12.4 million in total local property taxes.

Montana could make 100 million gallons of advanced biofuel each year using only crop waste -- equivalent to 20 percent of all the gasoline used in the state

Sustainable Oils, based in Bozeman, creates fuels derived from camelina, an oilseed plant from the mustard family. In April 2011, an F-22 broke the sound barrier while running on the company's 50-50 blend of camelina and jet fuel. Sustainable Oils is under contract to produce 500,000 gallons of jet fuel for the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force.[11]

Montana Advanced Biofuels plans to open a $400 million plant in Great Falls that would employ 100 people, making ethanol and animal feed out of low-protein wheat and barley.

Geothermal Energy

geothermal pool

Credit: Laney, Patrick (Pat) - Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory

Montana is one of 13 states that can produce commercial electricity from geothermal energy, according to an economic feasibility study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The Northwest Power and Conservation Council estimates the regional development potential of conventional geothermal power totals 416 MW over the next two decades -- enough to power more than 400,000 homes.[12] Montana has 15 geothermal sites already identified, with additional potential across most of the Bitterroot Valley and the eastern plains.[13] In Lake County, Flathead Electric Cooperative has received a federal grant to drill a well 2,000 feet deep to test the energy potential of hot water at that level.[14] If successful, this project could demonstrate the feasibility of generating energy from the hot water present at moderate depths in many areas of Montana.

It is very important to consider the environmental issues associated with geothermal development and to mitigate any potential negative impacts, such as threats to local groundwater and increased seismicity from drilling activity. Geothermal development is prohibited on lands adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, demarcated on the surface by the underground hot water aquifer that extends 12 miles north as well as to the northwest and northeast of the park.[15] Development should not go forward in other sensitive areas, including all the state's national parks and monuments, critical wildlife habitat, wild and scenic river corridors, and wilderness-quality lands.

In addition, drilling geothermal wells may involve hydraulic fracturing of underground formations, also known as fracking -- similar to the process used in oil and gas production. Strong protections must be in place to guard underground sources of drinking water from contamination during the fracturing process. Hydraulic fracturing operations related to geothermal production are currently exempt from underground injection control regulations under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Drilling or associated activities at the site can threaten the environment and human health in other ways as well. For example, chemical additives may be used in geothermal production. All drilling and fracturing activities, as well as management of toxic waste, should be conducted with the highest level of environmental protection.

Solar Energy

Montana has an average solar energy density of 4.5 to 5.5 kilowatt-hours per square meter per day, enough sunlight to derive significant amounts of energy. Under Montana's net metering law, small-scale solar electricity producers can sell excess power back to utilities, making solar installations a potentially cost-effective long-term investment.

Montana has a small but rapidly growing number of solar installations. NorthWestern Energy, the state's dominant electric utility, has more than 500 net metering customers who are producing solar electricity and sending it back to the grid, about 140 of which went on line in 2009.[16]

Because of their high energy needs and location in open areas, farms have great potential for solar energy applications, such as water and space heating, running irrigation pumps, grain drying, greenhouse heating, and small-scale electricity production.[17]

Renewable Energy Meets Wildland and Wildlife Conservation

Certain sensitive lands -- such as parks, monuments and wildlife conservation areas -- and ecologically sensitive marine areas are not appropriate for energy development. In some of these places, energy development is prohibited or limited by law or policy, and in others it would be highly controversial. NRDC does not endorse locating energy facilities or transmission lines in such areas. Siting decisions must always be made extremely carefully, with impacts mitigated and operations conducted in an environmentally responsible manner.

For more information on the intersection between clean energy development and wildland and wildlife conservation in the American West, including locations of parks, wildlife refuges and other conservation areas, see this Google Earth-based feature.


Economic Incentives for Renewable Energy Projects in Montana

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality provides links on its Energize Montana website to various energy efficiency and renewable energy programs and available incentives.

Another resource is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency that lists federal, state and local government incentives for renewable energy projects in Montana.

Wind Energy

The Energize Montana wind information page offers links on state wind resource maps, permit requirements, incentives available and case studies on commercial scale wind projects now in operation.

Biomass Energy and Cellulosic Ethanol

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation keeps a listing of biomass energy program grants and financial assistance.

Geothermal Energy

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality provides detailed information on geothermal technologies and an interactive map on geothermal energy potential from fifty different sites throughout the state.

Solar Energy

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has links to local solar energy associations and resource data, as well as net metering.


  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. [3]
  4. [4]
  5. [5];
  6. [6] Another earlier study actually found an increase in property values compared to other comparable local property. See:
  7. [7] Based on an average capacity factor of 38 percent.
  8. [8]
  9. [9] Various studies have estimated cellulosic ethanol yields of up to 110/gal per dry ton; this number assumes no increase in the current yield of about 70 gal/ton.
  10. [10] Based on Federal Highway Administration Statistics,, and
  11. [11]
  12. [12]
  13. [13]
  14. [14]
  15. [15] In 1986 the Church Universal Triumphant illegally drilled a well on its land, stopping the flow of the Laduke Hot Springs, which is tied to Yellowstone Park and probably to the Mammoth Terraces and Norris Geyser basins. After expensive, long-term research by the U.S. Geologic Survey, they could not figure out the hydrologic connections between Yellowstone Park geothermal features and those hot springs and geothermal features outside the park. Hence, the compact put these areas off limits.
  16. [16] Numbers provided in conversation with John Campbell of Northwestern Energy
  17. [17] For a detailed description of agricultural solar applications, see:
Share | |
Find NRDC on