Environmental and transmission concerns have prompted the Texas-based developer of a major commercial wind farm in northeast Montana to propose a much smaller project.
Even with the downsizing, however, the Valley County Wind Energy Project still would be the state’s largest.
In mid-November, Wind Hunter LLC, based in Flower Mound, Texas, submitted a revised right-of-way application to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management outlining the changes. The project is now less than half of its original size.
State and federal land managers met last week to discuss the revised plan. A decision is expected in a couple of months.
“It’s still a large project,” said Hoyt Richards, unit manager for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Glasgow office.
Under the new plan, the wind farm would be built on 6,756 acres of land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, state School Trust and private parties. Some 170 megawatts of electricity would be produced by 114 turbines standing 390 feet tall.
By comparison, the Judith Gap Wind Energy Center, located 125 miles southeast of Great Falls, produces 135 megawatts and is currently the state’s largest wind farm.
The original Valley County plan called for construction of 337 wind turbines on 20,000 acres in four phases. It would have produced 500 megawatts of electrical power.
“We don’t want to do something that isn’t feasible, and we’re not trying to do something that’s a huge controversy environmentally,” said John Fahlgren, the manager of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Glasgow Field Station. “I think the new proposal addresses the feasibility and environmental issues.”
Many comments in support of Wind Hunter’s original plan for Valley County were received during the environmental assessment, he said. Conservation groups also raised concerns because of the size of the project and its proximity to the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area.
In response to the concerns, wind turbines have been moved farther away from the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study area.
“Everything is set back,” Fahlgren said.
Fewer acres of public land are involved, he added.
In its comments on the project, NorthWestern Energy raised concerns about grid system upgrades needed to accommodate that much wind power, Fahlgren said.
Initially, a 34-mile 230,000-volt power delivery line from the wind farm to the Fort Peck-to-Havre transmission line was proposed. That’s been downgraded to 69,000 volts.
Another power transmission line is also in the planning stages.
A 218-mile merchant transmission line from Great Falls and Lethbridge is being proposed by Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. and it could lead to additional large wind farms being constructed north of Great Falls. Four wind farm developers, including Wind Hunter, have purchased capacity on the line.
The purpose of the Valley County wind farm is accommodating future demand for power in Montana and the region, according to Wind Hunter. It would be constructed in sparsely populated country 25 miles south of the Canadian border, 30 miles north of Glasgow.
Wind Hunter chose the area because of robust wind resources and access to a transmission system with adequate capacity.
Area residents remain hopeful the project will be completed, said Dave Pippin, chairman of the Valley County Commission. He said the project has broad support. The county has about 7,200 residents.
The wind farm will be a boost to the tax base and provide temporary and permanent jobs, he said.
“In a community like ours, even having six or eight jobs is a noticeable impact,” Pippin said.
Conservation groups responded positively to the proposed changes but added they were reserving final judgment until they see the revised plans for themselves.
Janet Ellis, program director for Montana Audubon, which works to protect birds and wildlife and their habitat, said the original plan would have fragmented too much habitat. The wind farm is proposed for the best short-grass prairie left in Montana, she said. The area is home to 25 species of birds of “conservation concern, she said.
Mark Good, field coordinator in Great Falls for the Montana Wilderness Association, said MWA supports wind power but has concerns about a “gigantic project” bordering a wilderness study area. The area’s open space makes it special and serves as a reminder of what plains once looked like, he said.
“There’s a place for them,” he said of larger wind projects, “but maybe it’s not every place.”
By Karl Puckett
Tribune Staff Writer