By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Havre Mayor Bob Rice is investigating the possibility of installing a wind turbine at Havre's water plant to save the city money on its energy bills.
"I'm thinking we'll try for one and see how it works out, see if it's successful," Rice said last week. "And if it works, we'll probably have to take a real hard look at it."
Rice said he hopes to bring the idea to the Havre City Council this summer after he does more research.
Wind turbines aren't cheap. Rice estimated one would cost $30,000. But he said a turbine would eventually pay for itself with the money it would save the city on energy bills. The power required to run the water plant is the city's largest energy expenditure, Rice said, running about $140,000 a year.
Rice said he started thinking about the idea several months ago because he saw information on the Internet about wind power, and he knew people in the area were having meetings about it.
He said two turbines installed last winter by the Anchor Academy north of Havre have been successful.
"They've got two at the Anchor boys academy, and it saves them a substantial amount of money," Rice said. "I don't know if it's doable or not but it's something I want to look into."
Dennis McElwrath, superintendent of Anchor Academy, has said that each of the turbines - driven by 27-feet-long blades - produces enough energy to save the academy about $500 a month when they are running.
"It saves Anchor about $500 a month, so you can imagine what it would save us," Rice said. "In five years they're paid for."
Turbines can pay for themselves, but how quickly that happens depends on a few factors, said Timlynn Babitsky, director of the North American Rural Futures Institute. NARFI helped bring a wind power seminar to Havre in February.
One factor is whether an entity pays for the turbines on its own or gets grants, she said. With grants, a turbine will pay for itself much more quickly.
Grants for wind power are readily available, she said. The most likely source of grants for Havre would be the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development. Loans are also available for wind projects, she said.
"There's money out there, but it's a matter of doing a little bit of nosing around" to find it, Babitsky said.
Other factors that affect how quickly a system pays for itself include how much wind a location gets, the capacity of the turbine, and how tall the turbine is.
Maintenance costs are very cheap, she added, so there is little additional cost once the turbine itself is paid for.
"Boy, there's a lot of potential here for economic development" using wind, Babitsky said, adding that Montana is the fifth windiest state in the country.
In January Liberty County installed a small turbine at a Liberty County shop. The total cost of the project came to about $45,000, Liberty County Commissioner Don Marble said Friday.
Marble, who spearheaded the project in Chester, said the county received grants for most of the project's cost. They included $12,500 from the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte, $10,000 from U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, $5,000 from DEQ and a $6,000 loan from the Bonneville Power Foundation.
The county supplied some cash and labor for the project, Marble said, adding that without the grant money, it would not have paid for itself.
The turbine cuts the shop's electric bill by about $300 to $400 a month. The county has not had any problems with the turbine, he said.
Marble said Havre would have to make sure there was a lot of wind at the water plant before it installed a turbine.
"You've got to have good wind - you can't just put it anywhere," he said.
McElwrath said today the total cost of the Anchor Academy's wind turbines was about $60,000, and that about half the money was paid for with donations and loans.
McElwrath said the turbines should be paid off in five years with the amount the turbines save on the academy's energy bill, so he thinks it was a sound investment.
But the turbines have had their share of problems, McElwrath said. North Havre and the region to the north of it is a high-risk zone for lightning strikes, he said. One turbine was hit by lightning and was down for about six months while it was being repaired.
Building wind turbines without grant funding is not lucrative, said Tony Boniface, owner of Independent Power Systems Inc. The Bozeman-based company designs and installs wind- and solar-powered systems for homes and water-pumping systems, and installed the turbine in Chester.
"Payback's pretty far out there," Boniface said, adding that the Liberty County turbine and one installed for a Montana Depatment of Fish, Wildlife and Parks facility south of Ennis are the only government entities he has installed turbines for. "Without grants, it's something on the order of 30 years."
Installing wind power is more of a political statement than a financial strategy now, but that may change eventually as turbines get bigger and more people begin to use them, Boniface added.
For example, Chester's turbine generates 10 kilowatts. An Oklahoma-based company is coming out with a 50-kilowatt version that will probably cost around $95,000. That means five times more power for only about twice the cost.
Wind power has been a hot topic on the Hi-Line in recent months.
Several ranchers in the state have put up wind turbines to decrease their electric bills with the help of Our Wind Cooperative, a cooperative based in Washington state that provides information for people interested in installing wind turbines.
The Chippewa Cree tribal government at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation has also expressed interest in developing wind power and bringing in an alternative energy curriculum to Stone Child College.