SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer
HELENA A pair of wind farm projects in eastern Montana are in jeopardy after a bill that would have allowed an electricity cooperative to own generation equipment was tabled Tuesday by House Republicans. The measure, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dave Wanzenried of Missoula, would have enabled the Billings-based Green Electricity Buying Cooperative to own $31.7 million in wind-farm projects and sell bonds to finance them. Current law limits the co-op and others like it to buying and supplying power. After lengthy debate and one unsuccessful attempt to table it, the bill was shelved by the GOPcontrolled House Judiciary Committee. “I believe this bill is well ahead of its time by at least two years,” said Rep. Ron Stoker, Rdarby. Co-op officials said the move means they may have to forfeit the money awarded for the projects if the bill is not revived somehow. “I think everybody here was thinking it wouldn’t get through (the House), but I have faith in the process and faith that most of the people up here really try pretty hard to do what they think is right,” the co-op’s executive director, Russ Doty, said following the vote. Wanzenried and other supporters hailed the measure as an opportunity to put Montana ahead of the curve in green energy and give consumers the choice of getting their electricity from small, independent wind projects. Opponents called it an “inappropriate approach” to green energy and said it would cut into NorthWestern’s customer base and power load. That could make it more difficult for NorthWestern Energy to secure long-term power contracts, leading to higher electricity prices for its customers. Republican committee members also questioned the experience of co-op board members and suggested the bill would spur more green power mandates like the one passed by the 2005 Legislature. It requires public utilities by 2008 to buy at least 5 percent of their electricity from alternative resources like wind, solar, geothermal or hydroelectric projects. That minimum jumps to 10 percent in 2010 and 15 percent in 2015. “What we’re doing is forcing my constituents to buy more expensive power,” Rep. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said of Wanzenried’s bill. Rep. Dave Gallik, D-Helena, and other Democrats said the bill doesn’t require anyone to buy green electricity, but only makes it possible for the co-ops to own generation equipment and take a stab at the green electricity market. “This is capitalism at its best,” Gallik said. The bill was crafted to help the Green Electricity Buying Cooperative and others like it move forward with projects financed through a new bonding program that Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., wrote into the 2005 energy bill. GEBC received $31.7 million for two wind farms one in Yellowstone County northwest of Billings and the second near Fort Peck in McCone County. Each would produce up to 10 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 3,000 homes each, and could be online in about two years. Members of the co-op, who number 38, would buy the electricity generated by the windmills. The power would be transported to customers along lines owned by regular utilities, such as NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities, which would charge consumers for the green power. A companion bill that would have allowed counties and other local governments to develop small wind projects was tabled by the House Appropriations Committee. The bill is Senate Bill 337.