If you’ve driven between Miles City and Jordan lately on Highway 59, then you may have spotted the huge metal structures that are now sprouting from the ground like skyscrapers out in the distance.
It’s all part of the Clearwater Wind Project that NextEra Energy Resources is building.
Construction is ahead of schedule on the wind farm, which the company says will be the largest in Montana.
"The reason we are here obviously is because of the wind. This is where the wind is,” says Jess Melin, executive director for NextEra. “I think here in eastern Montana, we have found a gold mine here.”
A lot of research went into putting the wind farm here, and Melin is certain they found the right spot.
“We have over 10 years of onsite meteorological data. We know how much the wind blows, we know when it blows, we know how it blows over the land. We combine that with satellite data and models to determine where to put the turbines,” says Melin.
Melin says animal species in the area and landowners' requests were also considered before construction began on the wind farm.
Eventually close to 300 wind turbines— each roughly as tall as a 40-story building—will snake through parts of Garfield, Rosebud, and Custer counties.
The first phase of the project, which includes around 130 turbines, is moving closer to completion.
An 85-mile power line is being built to transfer the power that is harnessed from the farm to the substation in Colstrip, where existing transmission lines will be used to send the power to Washington state.
Puget Sound Energy, based in Bellevue, Washington, has rights to purchase the energy from the first phase of the project for customers in the Pacific Northwest.
The wind farm will eventually provide about 750 megawatts of electricity—enough to power about 135,000 homes.
While the energy harnessed here won’t stay in Montana, Melin says this part of the state will still reap a lot of benefits.
“At the end of the 30 years, we will have paid over $200 million in property taxes in these three local counties and all of the landowners who are our partners for 30 years, we will have paid them over $200 million in land payments,” says Melin.
That’s not to mention the money brought into the local economy by the hundreds of construction workers who have been busy working on the project.
Wind energy has come a long way in recent years. Not only are the turbines taller and blades longer, but new technology also makes it easier to capture the wind.
“Each of these turbines has its own little weather station on top and so they are always communicating with each other. When the wind starts hitting the north part of the farm, it will send a signal out to tell the rest of the farm this is where the wind is shifting to. Each turbine will independently turn into the wind and pitch the blades to maximize the capture of that energy,” says Melin.
The turbines have a life expectancy of 30 years but can be refitted with new blades and a new generator, so there’s a good chance this wind farm will be providing power for many decades into the future.
The first phase of the wind farm is expected to be online by September or October of this year.