The Festival of the Winds has arrived in Harlowton, Montana, and every stool at Wade’s Drive-In is taken. I lean over the counter to ask where I might find some of the festival activities, but the waitress has no time for small talk. As she hurries past I catch a glimpse of her blue t-shirt emblazoned with a towering white wind turbine.  “What do you mean,” she barks over her shoulder, “it’s everywhere.  It’s a whole town thing.”

The wind has always howled through Harlowton, but its whistle has never been so welcome. Last weekend, the town hosted the second annual Festival of the Winds in Wheatland County (pop. 2,037), a three-day celebration with wind-themed activities aimed at attracting tourists and inviting further wind energy development. With 90 new turbines spinning at the state’s first major wind farm, perpetual gusts have become a valued resource in Wheatland County, and wind power is poised to spread throughout the region.

“Wind has always been a pain in the butt,” admits John Bacon, Operation Manager for the county’s Judith Gap Wind Energy Center, which operates the turbines. But complaints have decreased since 2005, when the center began delivering $1.2 million annually in property taxes. That year, Chicago-based Invenergy, a renewable energy company, brought 200 construction jobs to the county. Now, 13 jobs remain, and $2.4 million in impact fees (money paid to the county for road maintenance and other county services) have been channeled into a trust fund to support community development.

With local pride, the festival’s organizers are advertising their city as a destination for both turbines and tourists. “We want people to recognize that we actually exist,” says Larry Steuben, leader of the weekend’s Ride the Wind Motorcycle Rally. Scot Mitchell, CEO of the county hospital, was equally enthusiastic after his victory in the Windbag tall tale contest. He stood outside the Harlo Theater cradling a golden shovel, the prize given each year to the best ‘bullshitter’ in the county.  “It’s an opportunity to let folks know that right here in a frontier community like Harlowton, we’re at the forefront of the technological advances you’re seeing in green energy,” he offered.

While Harlowton may need more than a Breakin’ Wind chili feed to lure additional tourists, Wheatland county winds need little endorsement: The turbines north of Harlowton outperform all other General Electric turbines installed in North America to date. Consequently, the Judith Gap Wind Energy Center is exceeding production estimates by 15-20 percent and a 35-tower expansion is already in the works.  That expansion will increase the center’s output to 188 mw, enough electricity for 300 homes annually.

Despite these ideal conditions, Judith Gap is still the only major wind farm in Big Sky country. “Montana has major transmission issues to overcome,” explains Wendy Kleinsasser, at Wind Park Solutions in Big Sandy, Montana. “We have several projects that are on hold for that reason.” But moving the wind-generated electricity isn’t the only challenge.  A dependable power source is also needed to provide electricity when the wind isn’t blowing. Northwestern Energy, the state’s largest utility, is busily trying to solve these problems.  The company is currently planning a new transmission line from southwestern Montana to southeastern Idaho, and conducting site selection for a natural gas-fired power plant that could be on line as early as 2012.

That’s not too long to wait, says Dave Miller, a Harlowton area rancher who hosts 16 turbines on his property. “It’s renewable,” he exclaims. “We don’t have to pump it or burn it, and there’s enough prairie land out here to build an infinite number of these things.”

While “infinite” may be a stretch, experts say a great number is likely. Montana ranks fifth for wind energy potential in a nation where installed wind power capacity surged by 45 percent last year. Already, eleven major wind projects are proposed statewide and the local debate on when enough wind development becomes too much is underway. Peter and Cheryl Marchi own the Crazy Mountain Inn at Martinsdale, in neighboring Meagher County. They support local projects, but they also want some landscapes to remain unchanged. “Everybody says, ‘It’s just in one place, it doesn’t matter.’  Well, if you get a project in every rural place in Montana that’s got wind, it will matter.”

Bacon agrees that future development in Montana should have limits. “I’ve been down to the wind farms in California, and those are overdeveloped. Too much gets ugly.”

But for now, Harlowton residents are content to celebrate the end of those days when the wind delivered little but tumbleweeds.

Story by Gabriel Furshong. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in June 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008