Subscribe for 17¢ / day

GREAT FALLS - The nation's credit crunch could slow the planning of brand new wind farms in Montana this year but shouldn't stop facilities that are further along in the planning process, developers and state regulators said.

Enough wind energy to power up to 37,800 homes hit the electrical grid in Montana in 2008, and planned expansions and new projects already under way could double that over the next year.

"Traditionally, wind energy development has been pretty financially secure," said Chantel McCormick, a senior energy development specialist with the state Department of Commerce's Energy Promotion and Development Division. "So I think we're going to be OK."

"We're just hoping to build what we've already started," she said.

Wind generation still accounts for just a fraction of the state's electricity output, with coal-fired production making up 64 percent of production.

Montana ranks 15th in the nation in wind production.

In 2008, 126 megawatts of new wind generation occurred in Montana, bumping the state's total to 271.5 megawatts. A single megawatt is enough to power between 250 to 300 homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

The state's new wind generation would be sufficient to power all the homes in Great Falls.

In October, NaturEner USA-owned Glacier Wind Farm completed the 106.5-megawatt first phase of the 210-megawatt Glacier Wind Farm in Glacier and Toole counties north of Great Falls, and it began selling the power to a California utility.

Construction of the second phase, which calls for 103.5 megawatts and 71 additional turbines, will begin this spring, said Calvin Olson, San Francisco-based NaturEner USA's director of wind energy development.

"This time next year, we hope to have it up and running," he said.

The 19.5-megawatt Diamond Willow Wind Farm, which is owned by Montana Dakota Utilities, went on line near Baker in Eastern Montana. MDU is planning a 10.5-megawatt expansion in 2009, McCormick said.

Mark Jacobson, the Denver-based director of business development for Invenergy, the owner of the 130-megawatt Judith Gap wind farm, said a 52.5-megawatt expansion is planned if the company can line up a contract to sell the power.

The expansions at the three facilities could lead to the production of an additional 166.5 megawatts of wind power in 2009 but the total could hit 220 megawatts if Texas-based Horizon Energy begins construction on the 50- or 60-megawatt first phase of its 300-megawatt wind plant near Martinsdale, McCormick said.

"That's just sort of the tip of what we're going to see," McCormick said. "There are several other projects that are hoping to get all of their ducks in a row to start production in 2009."

The office is monitoring two possible projects in the Ennis area and one in Stillwater County, she said.

But with the poor economy making it more difficult to raise capital in all industries, companies planning brand new wind projects could have a tough time getting off the ground in 2009, said Paul Cartwright, a senior energy analyst with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

"You probably won't see new sites laid out for a year or two," he said.

Companies that already ordered wind turbines in advance of the economic downturn should be able to proceed with projects, he said. Development in Montana, he predicted, will be better "than a lot of other states."

Copyright © 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.