Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer Talks About His Ambitious Plans for Wind Power

Schweitzer also discusses growing a new generation of scientists and engineers.

by / March 24, 2010

What's the biggest problem with alternative energy?

The simplest explanation is that burning coal and oil for electricity generation is supported by existing infrastructure, while clean energy sources like wind and solar aren't. Specifically alternative energy has a built-in hurdle -- how do you store solar power when the sun isn't shining and how do you transmit wind energy when the wind isn't blowing?

Some nascent technologies may provide the answer. But by and large, the storage and transmission technology that would make these energy sources more feasible doesn't exist.

In Montana, one of the country's windiest places, Gov. Brian Schweitzer is trying to solve that transmission and storage challenge by adopting the "build it and they will come" approach. Wind farms are popping up across the state, and Schweitzer believes it's only a matter of time before the technology follows.

Schweitzer is passionate about transforming Montana into a renewable energy leader. In a recent interview, he discussed this and other issues important to Montana's future, such as the Real ID Act and how to foster a new generation of students who are interested in math, science and engineering.


Watch Video: Gov. Brian Schweitzer discusses alternative energy efforts, and the problems of getting Montana wind energy to California electric cars.

You want Montana to be a leader in alternative fuels and energy sources. How do you make those goals a reality?
According to recent studies, Montana has the second-best wind energy resources in the country and some of the best on the planet. We have 30 percent of the coal in America -- 10 percent of the coal on the planet. We're increasing our oil production at the fastest rate in the country. We have many energy resources that can be cleaner and greener. Whether we're talking about capturing carbon dioxide from existing coal-fired plants or creating new kinds of coal-capturing devices for new kinds of plants, we're excited about developing our coal. And we're excited about developing our wind.

The most important thing is we have to develop storage technology. We actually have an unlimited supply of energy, whether it be tidal, wind or solar. But the wind isn't blowing all the time, and the sun isn't shining all the time. As consumers, we demand electricity when we want it, not just when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. So that means the most important technology of our time -- and for the next decade -- will be storage technology.

To give an example, if every car, light truck and SUV in America had a battery that could get the first 40 miles on a charge before it switched to another source of energy, we could eliminate two-thirds of the oil we import. Those cars exist today. What we don't have is the resolve to buy those cars and put them on the highways.


Wind farms are booming in Montana. But isn't the cost of building transmission lines always brought up as a reason not to build them? How do you overcome that objection?
Part of the solution to transmission is storage. We need to build more transmission so we can get the electricity to those who are using it. But understand -- we build transmission for peak demand. For example, in California at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday they have peak demand. But by Friday night at 2 a.m., they're only using half as much electricity. So if we could build a transmission system that had storage on the other end -- so that consumers with batteries in their cars could either be buying electricity in the middle of the night or selling it back into the grid at 10:00 in the morning -- we would need less transmission.

We do need to add to our transmission capacity, and that's why Montana leads the entire world in digitally cataloging our wildlife corridors. So when people are deciding where they're going to build transmission lines, we already know where the antelope, bears and elk need to move -- and we build those transmission lines so that we'll be able to maintain our quality of life and a transmission system that delivers Montana wind power to California cars.

You've advocated for synthetic fuels, in addition to wind and other energy sources. Can you explain what synthetic fuels are and why they're not a larger part of the energy market?
I'm most excited about crops that produce oil for biodiesel -- crops like canola and camelina in Montana, and jatropha in the tropics. All told, they could be 5 or 10 percent of our fuel supply. Ethanol is interesting because most of the ethanol plants were built in the Midwest and the fuel was corn. Most of the future ethanol plants are likely to be in the West -- and the energy source will be trees. In Montana, we have about 3 million acres of dead and dying trees from a pine beetle kill. These are great sources of energy that can be used to make ethanol or some kind of biomass to create electricity. So you have trees that are dying and they become a fuel source, either for a liquid fuel or for an electricity supplier.


Watch Video: Synthetic fuels, biodiesel, clean coal, carbon sequestering, coal gasification 101, and the governor and first lady's math and science initiative.

You've talked about "clean coal," a concept that can be difficult to understand. What is clean coal?
The first cleanup of coal was to remove the sulfur, mercury and nitrogen. But more recently, we're concerned with the carbon dioxide. There's approximately two tons of carbon dioxide produced for every ton of coal we burn. Many of us believe carbon dioxide is contributing to the greenhouses gases that are contributing to climate change. If we can capture a portion of that carbon dioxide immediately, it starts to make coal cleaner. And if we use coal gasification -- plants that are already built around the world, including in our region, that capture 100 percent of that carbon dioxide -- and then if that carbon dioxide is pumped back into the earth, either for enhanced oil recovery or for storage geologically in some deep saline formations, or even to be made into bricks as a fuel source for making more biodiesel, that means we capture the carbon dioxide, sulfur and mercury. And if coal is zero emission, that's clean coal.

Is coal gasification similar to plasma gasification, the process of using a plasma torch to reduce waste down to its elemental state?

It's very similar. The traditional way of producing energy from coal is you ignite the coal; it makes a ball of flame, which you direct onto a water source. That water becomes steam, which turns a turbine and generates electricity. With coal gasification -- think of a Thermos jug, the kind steel workers used to carry. Now think of a Thermos that's 150 feet high and 40 feet in diameter. The top comes off, you dump 30 tons of coal into it, and you screw it back on. Then you heat it. And with high temperature and high pressure, methane gas -- or natural gas -- carbon dioxide actually comes off the coal. You separate the carbon dioxide, pump it back into the earth where it came from, and then that natural gas can run your cars, heat your homes or make electricity. That's coal gasification 101. It's a controlled environment so there are no emissions. There is no smokestack with this process.

Is your vision for Montana as a hub for alternative energy the reason you want to get students interested in technology, science and math initiatives?
My wife Nancy and I are scientists, and we want more young people to study science and math. She and I were talking about the channel that sent us into science: It wasn't in college or even high school; it was fourth or fifth grade. And that's true of most children. We'd like talented young people to aspire to designing a ball, not hitting a ball; to aspire to creating new sound systems, not playing rock 'n' roll guitar. If we can get more of these young people to aspire to be engineers and not journalists, we think we can change the world one scientist at a time.

How do you maintain students' interest in math and science?
We pound it in. We continually talk about how cool science is. We have Montana science trading cards. Elementary school kids can trade these cards that have cool science facts about Montana. You have a governor and first lady who continually talk about how cool science is, who continue to give accolades to the best science and math teachers -- those teachers who bring math and science to life -- those are the people we like to reward.

Let's talk about the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Centers in Butte. In what ways would you like to leverage that technology?

Look at the remarkable geology of Montana: God has blessed us with some of the best resources for hydrocarbons. We have the only platinum and palladium in the Western Hemisphere. We have copper, silver and gold. When you are trying to map the earth's strata, it's three-dimensional. Montana is the size of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and three of those other little states combined, so you have a large area to map geologically. The supercomputer can help us with that.

It can help us when we are injecting carbon dioxide 8,000 to 10,000 feet deep into these geologic structures to geologically store it so we can measure the pressure at 10,000 feet, 5,000 feet, 4,000 feet. It can help us as we attract bioengineering to Montana.

Everybody gets an opportunity to rent a little space on that supercomputer. This isn't just for scientists working in a laboratory, but also for applied research and science across Montana. It gives an opportunity to the 950,000 people of Montana to share the supercomputer. Businesses large and small can rent a space on that computer and help their business grow.


Watch Video: Schweitzer discusses the Rocky Mountain Super Computer and Real ID.

Montana was among the first states to openly oppose and eventually opt out of participation in the Real ID Act. Why?

There are several reasons. They told us the reason everyone in America has to carry a card that's standardized is so that we can stop another 9/11 from occurring. But we know that virtually every one of those hijackers and the other terrorists we've caught would have qualified to have this so-called Real ID.

Second, while the federal government isn't bad, we know it has abused individual civil rights before. We know that during World War I, it passed the Sedition Act, and people who had committed no crime, who were simply German immigrants or who spoke German, or those who were critical of the war effort -- were rounded up and put in jail.

This card, simply stated, would have allowed the federal government -- in a digital way -- to follow every place you come and go. When you get on a plane, it would have stored that information forever so that everyone would know where you went, how you got there and how you got home. That isn't the way you treat free citizens -- and in Montana we value freedom above anything else.

A new bill, PASS ID, is working its way through Congress. Some call this just a rebranded or watered-down Real ID Act. What do you think?
The devil will be in the details. If Pass ID will allow Montana residents to cross the border into Canada without a passport, that would be OK. If the federal government has no capability of collecting digital information of private citizens' travel or how many times they went to a federal courthouse, that would be OK. So we'll wait and see what the rules are. If it's helping citizens through a common identification system without infringing on their civil liberties, we can support that.


Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.