Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Harvesting the wind October 13, 2010 by Melynda Harrison • Published 10/13/10

From researching new technology to helping landowners understand development, MSU's efforts help with a wide range of wind education
Like most Montanans, Carl Mattson knows he lives in a windy state. The conservation and farm program associate at the Montana Grain Growers Association and Montana State University graduate thought he might take advantage of all of the wind on his family farm north of Chester. As it turned out, a wind energy company tried to take advantage of him.

Thanks to information and support from MSU Extension, and some investigative work by Mattson and his neighbors, he was able to protect his farm and his family's finances.

"The information you get from the wind industry (can be) biased, and some of the attorneys have only worked for the wind industry, so they can be biased, too," said Mattson, who said he and his neighbors were approached in 2007 by several companies about leasing their properties for commercial wind development.

The landowners formed a community group to sort through all the information they were receiving.
"It's a lot like talking to a doctor about a serious condition; you need another party to sort through all this information, and that's the great thing Sarah has been able to offer."

Montana could dramatically influence its economy through development of wind, if landowners and developers develop the new industry with care, according to MSU Extension specialist Sarah Hamlen.
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Sarah is Sarah Hamlen, the community resource and energy associate specialist for MSU Extension. She collects information about the complicated matter of land use agreements for commercial wind development and presents it to Montanans. Right now, Extension is one of the only places Montana landowners can go for unbiased information about wind land use agreements, aside from their attorneys' offices. And, there is a lot for a landowner to sort through when it comes to these long-term decisions on their property.

"It really is the wild, wild West in Montana in terms of wind land use agreements," Hamlen said. "Many elements of the agreements for commercial wind energy development have not been defined either by state statute or by Montana legal case precedent, so it is vital that landowners understand the terms of the agreement that will govern their relationship with the wind developer."

While wind land use agreements have been in existence for a number of years, from 2005-2008 the interest in Montana wind energy potential increased sharply due to promotion of the state's wind energy resource, increased fuel prices and federal energy policy discussions that indicated a growing effort toward national incentives for wind development.

In Montana, a variety of companies, from large, well-established wind developers to new energy companies, began leasing at a frenetic pace. While short-forms of the land use agreements are to be filed at the county clerk's office in the county where the land is located, there is no one source tracking the number of acres that have gone under contract. Hamlen suspects the amount of land in Montana is significant.

The revenue for landowners also can be significant. While nominal per-acre fees are usually paid prior to development, compensation to the landowner can be $3,000-$5,000 per installed megawatt per year or a percentage of gross revenue if a wind farm is built. If the financial incentives can be great, so can the risks to the landowner.

MSU Extension does not provide legal advice and always encourages landowners to find competent legal assistance, Hamlen said. However, she believes that discussing best practices with landowners and providing access to unbiased resources can help landowners when they are working with their attorneys.

"Landowners need to think about the terms of the agreement and how they might impact their agricultural operations in the future," she said. "For example, they need to ensure that they maintain access to their equity, consider what might occur in the event of a financial default on the part of the developer, consider what might happen if the developer sells the wind farm to a utility or other developer and consider how they will expect the property to be reclaimed following decommissioning of the wind farm."

Hamlen said unless the contract is clear about what will happen if the developer goes belly-up or the equipment is decommissioned, it can be left to the landowner to figure out how to take down the towers in the event that they are abandoned. "I have visions of a rancher with a pick-up and a rope trying to take down an 80-meter tower," Hamlen said.

Likewise, Hamlen said state law is unclear about the definition of wind rights and its legal standing.

Yet, there are a lot of factors recommending wind energy development in Montana, she said. According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the state is ranked among the top five for wind power potential behind Texas, California, Iowa and Minnesota. Yet, the state is not developing anything close to its potential. Montana currently has about 375 megawatts of capacity of commercial wind installed--and ranks 18th in actual generation.
Wind is expected to provide 20 percent of the country's electricity by 2030, and the Department of Energy predicts that Montana's wind industry could increase its capacity from 375 to 10,000 megawatts by that time, which is considered to be enough electricity to power about 2.5 million homes.

Some of Montana's mightiest winds--considered utility scale--blow in central and eastern Montana where jobs are scarce. That leads proponents to believe wind developments could bolster the economy where Montana needs it most. In fact, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory completed an economic modeling of the impact of the development of 1,000 megawatts of wind in Montana over 20 years. Between direct, indirect and induced impacts, the modeling estimated an economic boost to Montana of $1.2 billion and the creation of 547 long-term jobs.

Yet, despite all this potential, in the fall of 2008 the financial underpinnings for commercial wind development deteriorated.

"By some estimates," Hamlen said, "more than 80 percent of the sources for tax credit financing disappeared, and the competition for financing escalated dramatically." This stumbling block has been further complicated by the ongoing national recession.

"The leasing activity in Montana has slowed dramatically as the industry works to stabilize the economic fundamentals," Hamlen said. But there are still companies pursuing land in Montana, and Hamlen expects that activity to increase when the economy stabilizes.

"We tell landowners to get a lawyer with wind experience on board before signing a lease agreement," said Brad Haight, of Compass Wind, a community-based wind development company in Denver. "The lease agreements are incredibly complex by necessity. If the lease agreement is too simple, it should send up some red flags.
"Whereas an oil or gas project has 100 years of law behind it, wind projects have 10 years of law. But, there is a way to do it."

One of the challenges for landowners in Montana is that, until transmission lines are built, it is difficult to know which companies are serious about building wind farms, and which companies have more speculative business strategies.

Hamlen said there are at least four transmission lines actively pursuing development (several others are in the planning stages), but there are few opportunities for immediate wind farm development.

"So you could say that much of this leasing activity is at some level speculative," she said.
Recently, Hamlen set up presentations with Haight in Cut Bank and Great Falls to help landowners interested in wind development on their land to get a developer's perspective.

"There are hundreds of steps in the development of wind energy; if you have one step that fails the whole project can fail," said Haight.
Haight said the complexity of the lease agreements is necessary in part because the law regarding wind power has not fully developed. Many Montana counties are without permitting rules, he said, so the lease agreement will lay out rules and express intent, should it ever come before a judge.

Haight said Montana's renewable portfolio standard should provide some certainty for both developers and landowners. The standard requires all public utilities to obtain 15 percent of their energy from renewable resources--including wind--by 2015.

Mattson's community group was also looking for some assurance. They got together with Hamlen and learned what questions to ask. The wind energy company claimed to have several energy development projects, but the group couldn't find any evidence of those projects online.
The company never wanted to talk about transmission lines, which Mattson found suspicious.

"We knew they weren't going to spend all that money to develop if there wasn't a way to sell the power," Mattson recalled.

Hamlen recommended the group ask several questions and do a lot of research before signing an agreement (see page 43).

Mattson's community group did ask questions. They looked deeply enough that they discovered the company they were talking to was strictly speculative and had never built any of the projects they had claimed.

"Eventually, the man we were talking to just stood up and left," Mattson said. "He told us we had too much information."

Hamlen said when MSU Extension helps landowners understand the complexity of the land use agreements, they are not discouraging them from getting involved in
the industry.

"Montana has potential to dramatically influence its economy through the development of wind," she said. "I would hope, however, that landowners and developers alike take seriously the need to develop this industry in a manner that benefits Montana in the long term."

MSU helps students prepare for careers in wind

On MSU's Faculty Court, a 51-foot tower with three six-foot blades--MSU's Skystream 3.7 Turbine--stands sentinel for the Wind Application Center. Students from two MSU senior-level courses helped the WAC and Western Community Energy install the high-tech windmill.

The turbine's computer software measures and tracks many parameters of its operation, including power produced per day, reduced carbon dioxide emissions, rotor speed and total amount of power produced. The turbine doesn't make much of a dent in MSU's power costs, but it is an important learning tool in preparing students to be engineers and technicians in Montana's wind energy field.

Montana WAC was one of six WACs created in 2008 with startup funding provided by the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Another five WACs have since started in windy states around the country. The energy department's goal is to have a wind application center at a university in every state that has appreciable wind resources.

The turbine is just one part of Montana WAC's program. Montana

WAC offers wind energy educational opportunities to students at MSU, supports wind-related outreach throughout Montana and assists the companion Montana Wind for Schools program.
Through the WAC, MSU has incorporated more wind-specific topics into existing engineering courses for students, helped educate the public about wind energy and provided support for Montana's growing wind industry, according to Robb Larson, head of MSU's WAC.

"We're a land-grant institution dedicated to outreach and engineering," said Larson, who is a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. "It makes sense to support this industry that will eventually help students find jobs in their own state and support this clean, renewable energy field."

Students in mechanical engineering and mechanical engineering technology have worked on projects sponsored by the WAC. They have designed and built weather stations, developed a wind energy Web site and tested turbine blades.

As wind energy expands, Larson said Montana will need engineers and technicians like those who graduate each year from MSU's engineering programs. The university's expanded wind-related coursework prepares MSU students for alternative energy careers, Larson said.

The WAC also provides outreach and education to Montanans, both alone and in combination with Extension.

"We answer the phone on a daily basis and talk to individual homeowners and ranchers who want to know if wind energy is right for them," Larson said.

WAC also teaches kids about wind through MSU's Science Saturdays and Montana 4-H Congress, where Larson teamed up with Hamlen.

"Teaching kids about wind energy is huge," Larson said.

While students are learning about turbine technology, two MSU faculty members have built the nation's largest open-access database of wind turbine materials.

John Mandell, professor emeritus in chemical and biological engineering, and Dan Samborsky, a research coordinator in the same department, were funded by Sandia National Laboratories in 1989 to test composite materials--fiberglass, carbon fiber and resin--used to build turbine blades.

The more than 20 years of research they have compiled helps turbine makers create stronger, less-expensive blades, and their database is used by researchers around the globe.

Doug Cairns, a professor in mechanical and industrial engineering, has been involved in the wind research area--primarily in composite materials for turbine blades, but also in testing and promotion of Montana's wind resource--for more than 15 years. He is currently working on embedded sensor technology and wind turbine blade reliability through DOE funding from Sandia National Laboratories: Wind Power Technologies.
Since turbine blades are more than 100 feet off the ground, it can be difficult and dangerous to inspect them. Cairns' sensor and blade reliability research can evaluate the blade and send information to a computer without anyone having to leave the ground.

Wind Montana gusts across the state

In fall 2009, MSU-Northern and Montana Tech-College of Technology ran a pilot program offering a one-year Certificate of Applied Science in renewable energy technology. Then, in 2010, the Board of Regents approved and the U.S. Department of Labor funded the Wind Montana Project Grant.

Two other MSU campuses--MSU-Great Falls and MSU-Billings College of Technology--worked with MSU-Northern and Montana Tech to convert the renewable energy technology program into the new Sustainable Energy Technician CAS. That program started this fall at MSU-Great Falls, MSU-Northern and Montana Tech. The SET CAS will start spring 2011 at MSU-Billings-COT.
"If we don't develop a workforce in Montana, then the wind farms will go elsewhere for their workers," said Mel Lehman, Wind Montana program coordinator at MSU-Great Falls.

The new Wind Montana program trains wind technicians to maintain and repair large and small-scale wind farms. More than that, when the program is fully developed, its graduates--"sustainable energy technicians"--will qualify to work in several energy fields: wind, solar and conventional energy.

Lehman is in the middle of a three-year process to develop the program. Funding from Federal Department of Labor is being used to create the three components of the program--safety, electrical and mechanical--that are being worked into existing course frameworks.

"Our advisory board includes people from national and international companies vested in wind power, so we know our graduates will be hired," Lehman said.

Part of the program includes putting wind turbines on each of the participating campuses. Blades are already spinning at Great Falls and Northern (the MSU turbine is part of a separate program). The turbines are learning tools for students in the wind energy program and supplement electricity to a building or two on the campuses.

"This program gives Montanans a cost-effective way to get their training and eventually jobs, here," Lehman said. "We are supporting Montana's energy industry and training people for jobs in eastern Montana where there traditionally haven't been a lot of jobs outside of agriculture for a long time."