By Ron VandenBoom
State Auditor John Morrison during a Havre visit Tuesday said up to 15 percent of Montana's energy needs could be provided by wind power, which also could generate funds for schools.
"We're just getting to the point now where electricity prices are high enough and the cost of generating wind energy is low enough that it's starting to become feasible," Morrison said.
Morrison is one of five members of the State Land Board, which regulates the use of all state lands. He said the first step in the process is to identify those state lands that would be good prospects for windmills.
The lands, he said, would have to have good wind with power lines running through or near them. They couldn't include sensitive environmental areas like wild bird flyways or elk winter grazing land. Wetlands also would be excluded.
"If we can identify those areas we can offer them to people who develop these windmills to do feasibility studies and proceed," Morrison said.
Figures based on similar projects in Texas and other states indicate one 35-megawatt field would generate about $100,000 a year for Montana schools, Morrison said, adding that Montana has far greater wind energy potential than most states, ranking fifth in the nation in wind power potential.
Morrison was less certain how much Montana consumers might ultimately expect to save on their utility bills thanks to wind power.
"Unless we change the deregulated electricity environment that we are now in," he said, "the electricity that we generate just goes on to the western grid. So it has the same effect on our price of electricity as a new plant in Arizona or California which is marginal."
Morrison said he has asked the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to come up with some preliminary regulations to create a legal framework for the windmills.
"You can't just lease the land and let them go do what they want," Morrison said. "You have to have some rules in place ... consistent with responsible management and stewardship of our school lands."
Public hearings will be scheduled on the project soon, Morrison said, and he hopes to see windmills operating on state lands by next year.
Morrison also discussed changes in Montana privacy law related to insurance and investments. The state auditor serves as the insurance and securities commissioner for the state.
Recent changes in Montana privacy laws have given the state some of the toughest privacy laws in the nation, he said.
Morrison said insurance companies were having people sign blanket releases at the same time they purchased their insurance. Their personal, and in some cases financial, information could then be sold to other companies or used in marketing.
"The problem was not the collection of information," Morrison said. "It was the disclosure of information. So we targeted the consent requirement."
Companies no longer need consent from the customer to collect information necessary for them to do business, Morrison said. "But as soon as they want to disclose that information to do other business, such as marketing, you've got to get their (the customer's) consent."
It's a process Morrison described as "opt-in."
Previous law allowed companies to use information as they saw fit unless the customer specifically "opted-out," Morrison said. Now companies are not allowed to use the information unless the customer specifically "opts-in."
California is considering a similar law, Morrison said.
Morrison is also looking into options to reduce what he said is $67 million annually in medical transfer costs to insurance companies.
About 20 percent of Montanans have no health insurance. When someone with no insurance goes to the hospital, the cost of their treatment is "transferred" in the form of higher medical costs that ultimately are paid by insurance companies. The result is higher premiums to people who can afford insurance.
"The problem is that there aren't enough options for those people who can't pay $300 a month (for insurance), but can pay $50, $60, or $70 a month," Morrison said.