The Wind Spirit Project
Renewable Energy Pioneer Plans a Wind-Powered Smart Grid
BY PAT HILL
Carl Borgquist and his partners at Grasslands Renew-able Energy in Bozeman envision harnessing the breezes of America's Northern Plains for a renewable energy infrastructure that will be a model for others to come.
Formed in 2008, Grasslands’ goal is to design and construct a reli-able and consistent renewable energy “Smart Grid” in the American West by 2017. Calling their plan the Wind Spirit Project, the company announced in a Mar. 29 press release that it has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) reques-ting the approvals needed to move forward with the project. “Our goal is to create a package of renewable energy that can compete on reliability and price,” Borgquist said in the press release, “not just with renewables like solar, but with non-renewables such as coal. By combining Montana's wind resources in an integrated solution, Montana can help fight climate change and be a leader in America's energy future.”
Grasslands’ challenges are to bring on board enough renewable energy producers (mostly wind farms on the Northern Plains) to make the project logistically viable, secure financing through private capital and federal grants as the project evolves, and to win regulatory approval from the federal government.
“I think we have a very sound plan—both economically and practically—that [energy] indus-try stakeholders are recognizing and supporting,” Borgquist told the Pioneer during a recent interview at Grasslands' Bozeman office.
Currently, Grasslands has contractual agreements with ten energy generators accounting for about 4000 megawatts of wind. Some of the energy generators produce electrical power from multiple wind farms, the total number of which Borgquist puts at 34.
Trained as a tax attorney, Borgquist also served stints as a district attorney and a U.S. Naval Judge Advocate. He became involved with wind power in 2005, after working with a client wanting to build a wind farm. Borgquist knows how to look for the investors needed for the project, which has an estimated cost of $12 to $15 billion for the wind farms, transmission lines and hubs, and storage facilities. Grasslands has discussed their plans with about 60 energy developers mostly working on wind projects.
“A lot of interested parties have to be pulled into the process in terms of government and public interactions,“ said Borgquist. “There are a lot of ways the pieces could come together.”
The pieces involved in pulling together Grasslands' alternative energy “portfolio,” as Borgquist calls it, involve renewable energy sources including geothermal and solar as well as wind, but wind is the principal target in Grasslands' potential alternative energy array.
By bringing many energy generators together, Borgquist intends to solve problems with the delivery of power generated by wind, such as maintaining a steady energy stream from such a notoriously erratic force.
“The more renewables we put into the system the better,” said Borgquist. “The amount of energy supplied by wind can really change when the wind does. We want to promote reliability. When you can pull together a portfolio you can optimize how you use the energy.” The ability to optimize that energy helps ensure the steady stream of power that Grasslands is seeking.
Wind farms will be the major source of energy in Grasslands' portfolio, but the geographic location of some of the most lucrative places to harness the wind in the U.S., the Northern Great Plains, lie far away from the major cities and industries requiring that energy.
“We can build and install lots of wind energy generation on the Northern Plains,” said Borgquist. “The area around Judith Gap has the potential for a lot of wind power development. We can't use it all here. We need to send it out. We must be efficient in supplying that energy.” Borgquist said that efficiency will be gained via Grasslands' Smart Grid.
“The new grid will require new wires for the most part,” said Borgquist. Wind farms across Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Alberta will send energy to Grasslands' energy hubs planned for Toston and Harlowton via those new lines. Those hubs will ensure a steady 1,000 megawatt stream of energy to customers via trunk transmission lines like the Mountain States Transmission Tie and TransCanada's Chinook project, both presently under development.
“We're really trying to integrate our new system into the old grid to make it more efficient,” added Borgquist. “When our assets are deployed the grid will be stronger for everybody. The package of solutions we're bringing together is unique.”
One unique aspect of Grasslands' envisioned assets lies in their energy storage and management systems, which make a steady supply of wind energy much more efficient and reliable. Pumped hydro-storage is one method Grasslands is considering: electricity is stored as potential energy using a dual water reservoir system planned for central Montana. One reservoir is 1,000 vertical feet higher than the other, and when the wind is blowing excessively, the extra energy is used to pump water from the lower to the higher reservoir. When the wind is down, water is released from the upper reservoir resulting in hydropower. Pumped hydro-storage uses much less water than traditional hydropower, and regulation and operation of the supply grid can also be improved with the dual reservoir system, which Borgquist describes as a “big battery” of sorts that is clean and environmentally-friendly. Grasslands is also looking into more traditional battery storage technologies and compressed air energy storage.
“Our first storage facility is on the horizon,” said Borgquist. “We're progressing, but it's a very capital-intensive project.”
Borgquist said Grasslands is committed to supplying the energy their infrastructure will provide with a light footprint on the land.
“We're trying to work carefully with landowners on the project,” he said. “We're very sensitive that the impact is a benefit, really. We're a Montana company, and we live here. Having been a lawyer my whole career, it's exciting to be involved in something that's useful. That doesn't happen often in law…it's very exciting for me.”
The energy produced by the Grasslands venture, however, won't stay in the Treasure State: Montana, with just under a million residents, currently has a demand for about 1,400 megawatts of power. Montana already produces about 2,500 megawatts, exporting the other 1,000 megawatts out of state. Borgquist said that California and the southwest U.S. will probably receive most of the energy Grasslands produces, but Montana will benefit from Grasslands energy activities with tax revenues and jobs.
According to Grasslands, the U.S. Department of Energy esti-mates that 1,000 megawatts of wind energy in Montana could generate $1.2 billion in economic growth and thousands of new jobs. That 1,000 megawatts can also power about 600,000 American homes, and Borgquist said the country as a whole will benefit from the renewable energy Grasslands will provide.
“Montana can and will lead the nation in wind energy development,” said Gov. Brian Schweitzer. “But until we solve our transmission constraint problems, little of this great resource will be developed. This project proposed by Grasslands Renew-able Energy is an important first step in ensuring quality energy jobs for Montanans and clean energy for America.”
“We need clean energy…we need our own energy,” said Borgquist, “for security reasons as well. As a group [at Grasslands], we want to lead and solve problems, and get something done. We need to do more than grumble about it. There's a free resource blowing across Montana.”