Gov. Brian Schweitzer envisions a day when New Yorkers will be driving cars powered by the wind that howls across the Montana prairie. The Democrat recently called on the federal government to spend $15 billion to build a next-generation transmission grid to link such far-flung regions.
“You start delivering wind to cars and the [oil-nation] dictators, they get sad fast,” says Mr. Schweitzer in his Helena office-cum-classroom, where he keeps vials of biofuel feed stock and model windmills to show visitors. He has a lump of coal, too – a reminder that Montana not only has lots of wind to harness, but tons of coal to shovel.
The interior West’s abundance of both green-energy resources and traditional fossil fuels make some watchdogs nervous about a rush to build what has been called an Interstate highway system for electrons. The idea of expanding transmission lines is commonly pitched by politicians as a way to put people to work while removing a crucial obstacle to renewable power.
But it’s not going to be just wind and sun on those wires. “[S]ome proponents of expanding coal-fired electricity production are using windfarms as a rationalization for greatly expanding transmission lines through the region.
They talk a lot about wind power, but their real interest is vastly expanded use of coal in generating electricity,” says Larry Swanson, a regional economist at the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Schweitzer does not deny that federally funded transmission lines would also help his state’s coal industry. He says he is a strong advocate not just for renewables but for so-called clean coal technologies.
“We’re going to hook some coal into it,” he says. “Fifty percent of the electricity in America comes from coal. I’m all for change, but unless you are willing to live naked in a tree and eat nuts for the next 30 years, coal’s going to be part of the portfolio.”