The new year may bring economic development to Teton County if WindPark Solutions America succeeds in developing a 40-megawatt wind farm east of Choteau.
In December, WindPark Solutions representatives Dave Ryan and Wendy Kleinsasser detailed the for-profit power venture to Teton County residents during public meetings in Choteau and Dutton. Altogether, about 38 landowners, county and city officials and interested residents attended the meetings at the Dutton American Legion Hall and the Stage Stop Inn in Choteau.
During the presentations in Choteau and Dutton, Ryan, a project manager, said WindPark Solutions has been working on the Teton Ridge wind farm project for about a year and is now unveiling its plans.
The public meetings, Ryan said, are a way for the company to hear any concerns early in the process so that such concerns can be resolved in the best possible way.
“It’s going to be awhile before we do any construction,” he said. “We have some time. Hopefully, we’ll be able to work with people and get everyone’s concerns handled.”
WindPark Solutions is a limited liability company whose principles are Big Sandy organic farmer and grain marketer Bob Quinn, his cousin, Georg von Wedel, an economist and farmer from Sande, Germany, and Jorg Beland, an engineer and wind energy specialist, from Husum, Germany. They formed the company in 2001 to work on the wind farm at Judith Gap, which they designed, but did not build.
“This is a small company. We are not a huge corporate entity,” Ryan said.
Quinn is the logistics coordinator for the company; von Wedel the financial specialist; and Beland the technical coordinator. Beland owns Cube Engineering, a wind energy specialty company.
“Cube Engineering is one of the premiere wind analysis firms in the world. We’re lucky to be able to work with them,” Ryan said.
Ryan himself is a mechanical engineer, a former coal miner and is the president of the Montana Renewable Energy Association.
WindPark Solutions is working with a Billings engineering and construction company called Electrical Consultants Inc., on the project. He said the company uses an accountant and an attorney in Great Falls and would try to involve as many local construction subcontractors as possible in the project.
“We develop our wind farms so that everyone wins,” he said.
Introducing the project, Ryan said wind energy is attracting attention today as a viable option for renewable energy that is supported, presently, by a favorable federal subsidy. The cost of fossil fuels continues to increase as supplies dwindle, he said, and everyone is looking for alternatives.
“The big motivation for wind energy is that we’ve got a problem in our world today,” Ryan said.
Many of the traditional ways of producing power emit more pollution and use more water than wind energy, he said. These more traditional plants are often very large, 2000-megawatt projects, that leave a large footprint on the land. Wind energy projects are smaller and have a lower impact on the land, he said.
Today there are also concerns about fossil fuel consumption contributing to global warming, he added.
Renewable energy on the other hand is relatively pollution free and is resource oriented, Ryan said. “The resources are virtually unlimited, the fuel is delivered free on site and that is a great benefit,” he said. Once the plant is built, the cost of the power stays the same and offers stable energy prices.
Ryan said that the development of wind energy is in a boom cycle now with a 25 percent per year growth rate in wind energy production worldwide in recent years. Because of this boom, developers are seeing the price of equipment go up and the availability tighten.
The utility-scale wind farm that WindPark Solutions is proposing to build would be constructed on land along the Teton Ridge about 1.5 miles south of the Dutton highway, about six miles west of Dutton and 18 miles east of Choteau.
The wind farm would be built in two phases, with each phase involving the installation of nine to 13 wind turbines, each producing 1.5 to 2.5 MW of power, depending upon their design. Each phase would result in 19.5 MW of installed capacity. (One MW of electricity is about enough to power 35 houses, so this project, once completed, could power 750 houses or so.)
The company will invest about $33 million for each phase, Ryan said.
The Teton Ridge location was selected based on wind velocity data collected through several studies.
“It’s windy here. This is no surprise to you guys,” Ryan said, adding that the average wind speed along the ridge is 17 to 19 mph. “It’s a very nice site,” he said.
The wind farm in Phases I and II would involve 18 to 26 turbines set on 260-feet towers. The towers can survive wind gusts of up to 130 mph, Ryan said. They start generating electricity at 8 mph, reach their maximum generation at 23 mph, and turn off at 55 mph. Sensors control the turbine and respond to wind speed and direction.
Ryan said the project is now moving through the regulatory process. In May, the company applied for permission from NorthWestern Energy to connect to its transmission line via substations outside Dutton and Choteau. A study of transmission line capacity shows that the line could carry up to 20 MW more at each substation. Ryan said that means that the energy from WindPark Solutions could be tied in without any kind of transmission line upgrade as long as the amount produced doesn’t exceed 20 MW.
WindPark Solutions is still waiting for approval to tie into the system, Ryan said, adding that he believes the company will grant approval. The company will try to use the existing NorthWestern substations outside Dutton and Choteau, but if that is not possible, then WindPark Solutions will build a new substation.
If the company receives permission to tie into the existing Dutton substation, it will have to expand the station to include another transformer that would step up power from the wind farm, generating at 34,500 volts, to 69,000 volts, which is what the powerline operates on.
WindPark Solutions has negotiated land leases or letters of intent with the affected landowners for the turbines. The wind park site is all on private property, Ryan said, with no state or federal land involved. The company is open to visiting with other landowners in the area to explore options for possible future expansion.
The company is also working with county, state and federal agencies to obtain appropriate development permits, Ryan said.
Ryan said the construction of the wind farm would benefit the county through increased property taxes and the state through corporate income taxes. Locally, the wind farm would create temporary construction jobs and possibly some permanent employment for service and maintenance if both phases are completed.
Landowners will be compensated by annual lease payments and royalties, Ryan said. Speaking in general terms, he said, landowners would likely receive payments of $2,500 per MW per year as a minimum and as a maximum, 2.5 percent of the gross, which depends on the wind and can be significantly more than $2,500.
The company will continue in coming months to iron out its utility power purchase agreement with the out-of-state buyer of this electricity for the first phase of the project, which will tie into the Dutton substation. Ryan said the company is seeking a purchaser for electricity that would be generated by the second phase, which would tie into the Choteau substation.
The company wants to start constructing the first phase of the project in the fall of 2007 or the spring of 2008, depending on the supply of turbines.
Answering questions from audience members, Ryan said the project would involve installing new transmission line from the wind farm east to Dutton and west to Choteau. The location of that line is not yet determined, he said, but it would be a single-pole construction.
Dutton-area farmer Chris Stephens encouraged WindPark Solutions to grant farmers whose land the lines will cross royalties as well as easement compensation. “You need to make the landowners a partner so you’re not at odds,” he said. “These power lines are forever.”
Ryan said, “Our goal is that everyone is going to win.” He said that the company plans to work with landowners over whose property the transmission lines might run and to be responsive to their concerns.
Dutton Mayor Susan Fleshman, who hoped the project would include property located in the town, quizzed Ryan and Kleinsasser about benefits to the town and impact on migratory birds as well as raptors.
Kleinsasser said Apex Environmental of Bozeman is developing a report on potential impact, but so far the research is suggesting that impact would be very low. The turbine towers are now designed to discourage birds from trying to perch on them, she said. They are also painted a highly visible color to bird eyes and the turbine blades spin slower than some of the older models. National studies find that 1.9 birds per year hit each turbine.
Maybe Dutton needs to annex the substation so it will see increased property taxes too, Fleshman said, laughing.
Ryan also said that the wind farm would supply energy through a 20-year contract with a fixed price. “Whereas the price projection for coal and natural gas generation is escalating, the wind generation is level,” he said.
Dutton spray pilot Mike Campbell said he does not mind working around power lines, but he does not want to see the county start to resemble the area north of Great Falls. He asked Ryan whether the transmission lines could be buried.
Ryan said burying the lines is four times more expensive than building overhead lines and because of that, a small project like this probably could not afford to do that. Even installing overhead lines is costly at about $40,000 a mile. “It’s a significant part of the cost,” he said.
Arne Pedersen, who recently sold his cafe in Dutton, told Ryan, “You got my vote: go ahead and do it.”
All three county commissioners along with the county planner and the Teton County Farm Service Agency Committee attended the meeting in Choteau.
Answering questions from Choteau residents, Ryan estimated that the project would generate $100,000 to $150,000 in new county property taxes for Phase I.
He also said that the turbines will be scattered along the ridge, positioned to best take advantage of the prevailing southwest wind.
Ryan said the process of developing the wind farm takes time and is ever-changing.
“I always thought the wind was the tough part … it’s getting the transmission, getting all the agreements and finding a customer for that energy,” he said.
Ryan said he considers the new power produced by this wind farm as power to fuel growth. “It’s not going to replace anything,” he said.
By Melody Martinsen- Acantha editor
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