Judith

Montana ranks 24th in the nation for installed wind energy production capacity and, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, they are ranked 5th for estimated potential onshore wind power. Taking advantage of that potential wind energy in Montana has grown rapidly in the last decade. Invenergy was ahead of the game though. Judith Gap Energy Center was the first wind farm in the state of Montana and last month we celebrated the 15-year anniversary of Judith Gap becoming operational.

The project was first conceived in 2000 but it took five years to get proper approvals, permits and to find a purchaser for the power produced. In 2005, Northwestern Energy signed a contract to purchase the 135 megawatts of power which is about 8 percent of the total power used by Northwestern Energy. Then in 2006, the 90 turbines came online with each unit capable of producing up to 1.5 MW of power – enough to power between 350-400 homes.

The turbines stretch across 8,300 acres of state and private ranch land between the towns of Harlowton and Judith Gap. The location is nestled between the Little Belt Mountains and the Snowy Mountains, which can make for some extreme weather. In fact, on February 16, the date of the anniversary, it was 60 below.

Extreme weather also means extreme winds. Michael Prater, O&M Manager at Judith Gap, has worked in wind energy all over the U.S. for more than 10 years. He claimed, “This, by far, is the windiest place.”

As an industry standard, 15 meters per second is considered particularly windy. “That’s nothing for central Montana,” said Prater, “I’ve seen wind speeds get up to 29 meters per second. To the point where we have to shut down turbines to prevent them from breaking.”

Because of the high winds, there was a 5-year study done on the type of turbine Invenergy installed at Judith Gap. The turbines run at maximum capacity when the wind reaches 33.5 mph and shut down when it climbs above 56 mph so that the turbines aren’t damaged.

Mary Beth Bennett, Administrative Assistant at Judith Gap, has been with the company for more than 10 years after she answered an ad in the local paper for administrative work. She, along with the 11 other employees, take a lot of pride in not only their work, but in Invenergy’s relationship with the community.

“Before the wind farm came in, Wheatland County was one of the 10 poorest counties in Montana,” explained Bennett.

Since coming online, the project has brought numerous economic benefits to the host community. Between construction jobs, property tax payments and landowner payments, the project has boosted the local economy. The tax-based revenue on the state-owned land Invenergy leases also goes toward the schools in Judith Gap and Harlowton. In addition, The Energy Impact Reserve Account (funded by the Invenergy Impact Program) gives money to non-profit organizations in the area each year.

“We are very pleased that Invenergy chose to build a power generation facility in our county,” said Tom Bennett, Wheatland County Commissioner.  “The project is a large investment in our area’s economic future, and its tax payments have been of great benefit to our schools, and toward property tax stabilization. The wind farm’s community fund has helped tremendously as well, enabling improvements to critical local facilities such as a community center and a fire hall.  Invenergy is an excellent community partner and we’re happy to have them as our neighbor.”

They are always looking to give back on a smaller scale as well. One year they spent their entire charitable donation budget on equipping six Wheatland County Sheriff’s vehicles with automated external defibrillators. “Since a Sheriff’s vehicle is many times the first on the scene of an emergency in our rural area, we thought it would be a good thing to do for the county,” explained Bennett.

Every year they make donations to the American Legion and VFW and often host a Veteran’s Appreciation Day inviting local veterans for coffee and snacks at the plant. They also host many tours for local classrooms ranging from elementary-age kids all the way to college classes.

Though last year, the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to keep up many of those activities they were still able to give back in other ways. They donated money to the local food bank as well as the local fire department and were still able to keep their commitments volunteering in the community.

Much of their volunteer and charitable efforts revolve around environmental initiatives. Harlowton is registered as a Tree City by the Arbor Day Foundation. Invenergy has made charitable contributions to keep that status active, and the employees of Judith Gap Energy Center volunteer their time and labor to help plant the trees. In addition, they have a commitment of picking up trash on the highway twice a year.

“We initiated this three years ago through the Montana Department of Transportation,” added Bennett. “We complete the litter pickup twice per year on a two-mile stretch of highway that runs directly through the wind farm.”

In 2018, the site contributed to Montana Range Days – a program that teaches hands-on education in range resource management. The donation also went toward the sponsorship of four, $1,000 college scholarships. They’ve also donated to local eagle and wildlife rehabilitation centers.

Mick Baird, Senior Vice President Renewable Development added, “We truly appreciate the tremendous support we’ve received over the years for the Judith Gap Wind Farm. Invenergy takes seriously our commitment to our host community in Wheatland County, and we look forward to continuing our strong partnership for many more years to come.”