Making Montana Renewable

Dean Poplawski
March 1, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2014


Fig. 1: Average annual wind power distribution for Montana. (Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy)

When looking at renewable energy, Montana is an interesting state to look at for a complete conversion to 100% wind, water and solar (WWS) resources because of its low energy demand and high amount of renewable energy. While fossil fuels are currently the primary source of energy, Montana has massive amounts of potential in harnessing all the renewable energy resources that its environment holds. For Montana to convert 100% of its all purpose-energy to wind, water, and solar (WWS), identifying each WWS energy device and the cost associated with it is one of the main steps. As such, the goal would be to replace all fossil-fuel electric power generators with solar photovoltaic rooftop systems and plants, wind turbines, and geothermal power plants.


Montana's total wind generation potential leads all states in the west coast of the United States. Montana by itself holds 39% of the region's total wind energy potential standing at around 830,500 GWh. This number is greater than all other western states combined, excluding Wyoming. In addition, Montana not only possesses great wind potential, but the quality of its potential is of extremely high quality. Wind energy is defined on a scale of 1 to 7 taking into account average wind speed. The best quality wind energy usually is Class 6 or 7 wind. Compared to all other western states, Montana tops them all when looking at the highest potential wind capacity of Class 4-7 and is second to Wyoming when looking at wind capacities of Class 6 and 7. [1]

Geothermal and Biomass

Montana also offers renewable energy potential in geothermal and biomass energy. One of only 13 states that have been identified as capable of producing commercial electricity from geothermal energy, Montana has yet to develop this potential. Montana's landscape is full of geothermal opportunity like in the southwestern valleys and places like Yellowstone National Park. [2] While this is an important resource, it is also imperative that the potential environmental issues of using geothermal energy are considered. Threats to local groundwater and increased seismicity from drilling activity are major potential negative impacts. With regards to biomass, the ranching and farming operations throughout Montana could offer fuel for electricity generating plants. Montana currently has only 16 MW of biomass mainly from forest product residues. Its electricity generation potential stands at around 6 million MWh/yr. [2]


Montana has enough sunlight to derive significant amounts of energy, yet this technology remains for the most part untapped. While Montana is not able to compete with the solar potential of California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, it still holds a respectable solar energy potential, an estimated 101 million MWh/yr. This potential however is most readily available in the smaller, residential, and rooftop style solar panels called solar photovoltaic systems (PV). [2]

Air pollution Cost Reductions due to WWS

Montana is the fourth largest state in the United States by size, but has the 44th largest population. However, Montana is not home to the type of large metropolitan areas that serve as huge sources for air pollution. As Montana generally experiences a good Air Quality Index with low levels of PM2.5 and O3. As a result, the reduction in air pollution mortality and morbidity due to conversion to a WWS-based infrastructure is less significant than it would be in most other states. [3]

The premature mortality rate in the U.S. as a whole due to heart disease, respiratory disease, and complications from asthma due to air pollution has been calculated with a three-dimensional air pollution weather model to be at least 50,000 - 100,000 per year. [3] Additionally, the US air pollution mortality rate was estimated at about 3% of all deaths, and the all-cause death rate in the US was 806.5 deaths per 100,000 population in 2011. [4]

With a population of 311.8 million in 2011, this suggests an air pollution mortality rate of 75,440 deaths per year. Montana, with a 2011 population of one million people, made up .32% of the US population. Scaling this for air pollution deaths, we estimate that Montana sees at least 242 (160 - 321) premature deaths due to air pollution per year. USEPA provided a central estimate to the value of a statistical life at $7.7 million in 2007 dollars. [3] As such, 242 premature mortalities due to air pollution cost Montana $1.8 billion per year, or 5.2% of its GDP ($34.25 Billion).


In most of these sections switching to WWS is relatively feasible in terms of accessibility and potential; however, the one unavoidable hurdle is cost. Building the infrastructure and plants to convert Montana to 100% WWS power would require a massive amount of money that Montana, nor any state for that matter, can afford. While this might disable the state from going fully WWS in the near future, this theory still has value. Our data shows the huge benefits of switching to renewable energy. This could help guide the state to increasing WWS production for now and maybe one day Montana will reach full reliance. Finally, it simply proves that it would be possible to power Montana strictly using WWS resources.

© Dean Poplawski. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Montana Wind Report and Analysis," Energy Strategies, February 2010.

[2] J. Nielsen et al., Renewable Energy Atlas of the West: A Guide to the Region's Resource Potential (Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, 2003).

[3] M. Z. Jacobson et al., "Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State's All-purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water, and Sunlight," Energy Policy 57, 585 (2013).

[4] D. L. Hoyert and J. Xu, "Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2011," U.S. National Vital Statistics Reports 61, No. 6, October 2012.