A state agency charged with protecting the environment holds the key to whether northcentral Montana will become a power mecca with as many as 400 wind turbines erected between Great Falls and Cut Bank along a proposed transmission corridor.
The trade-off for losing the undeveloped view, generally paralleling the west side of Interstate 15, would be a steady source of supplemental revenue for landowners and tax revenue for local government. The electricity from the wind farms, however, would be sold to out-of-state power plants, most likely in California, under power-purchase agreements with the wind companies.
Calgary, Alta.-based Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. is proposing to build a private “merchant” transmission line between Lethbridge, Alta., and Great Falls. The company had expected to get all of its permits approved by September 2006, but requests for more information from regulatory agencies on both sides of the border have delayed approval.
In an interview last week, Bob Williams, MATL’s vice president for regulatory matters, said, “We are reluctant to make forecasts, but we are still committed to having the line in service this year.”
That will depend on whether the state Department of Environmental Quality, (through the Board of Environmental Review) issues the company a “certificate of compliance,” according to DEQ Major Facility Sitng Act coordinator Tom Ring of Helena. He is guiding the work of a third-party consultant to complete an environmental impact statement on the proposed 230-kilovolt, 300-megawatt alternate-current transmission line.
The board must consider the environmental impacts and determine the basis of the need for the facility; that the facility is consistent with regional plans for expansion of the electrical grid and that the facility will serve the interests of utility-system economy and reliability, among other things. While the transmission line requires DEQ’s approval, the proposed wind farms do not.
After months of research, the environmental impact statement is nearly ready for public review, according to Ring.
“We made our preferred route clear to the public. Now we are really looking to the draft environmental impact statement for public comment,” Williams said.
For more than a year, Williams and MATL’s advisory committees have held meetings with landowners and local government officials to promote the benefits of the transmission line, the first electrical interconnection between Montana and Alberta.
“We see a considerable number of benefits in both jurisdictions,” Williams said. The local governments in Alberta and Montana would receive property taxes, the landowners would receive significant annual payments and the company would pay corporate income taxes, he said. During construction, the workers would receive wages that would be used at local establishments for lodging and meals.
Four wind-energy companies have requested to use the line’s transmission capacity. Williams said that two companies, Great Plains Wind & Energy and Energy Logics, have removed the conditions on their request for 300 megawatts of transmission capacity northbound into Alberta. Meanwhile, Wind Hunter and Invenergy have requested extensions on their conditional requests for 300-megawatts of southbound capacity. “We are working with them,” said Williams.
Great Plains Wind appears to have paired up with Energy Logics. An Internet search last week revealed that the Great Plains Web site links immediately to the latter’s Web site. Great Plains General Manager David Dumon of Somers did not return a telephone message left for him on Friday requesting a clarification on the relationship between the two companies.
If all four companies build typical 260-foot-tall, 1.5-mw wind turbines, 400 wind turbines would be built between Cut Bank and Great Falls. Blades that are 120 feet long would extend each unit’s height on the skyline to nearly 400 feet.
Each turbine, which is the size of a bus, has a footprint on the ground of a half-acre after the unit is erected, however, wind-park designers place the poles far apart.
The 90-turbine Judith Gap Energy Center averages 92 acres per turbine.
Building wind parks is considered economic development in these parts, but getting the energy they produce to California is problematic, according to NorthWestern Energy Transmission Director Ted Williams, no relation to Bob Williams.
In a recent interview, Ted Williams said NorthWestern has no additional transmission capacity south of Great Falls.
“We cannot move any more power out of the Great Falls area. There is more generation coming on north and west of Great Falls that ultimately has to move south out of Great Falls,” he said, referring to the proposed wind parks.
When asked to comment this issue, Bob Williams said there is interruptible capacity south of Great Falls today. “There are a good number of hours in the day on an interruptible basis,” he said, adding that it is up to the wind park operators to deal with that.
“There are other generator projects, some ahead of us in the queue, but they have not been started. It gives the wind developer time to pursue different options,” Bob Williams said.
Ted Williams was not against the proposed development. He said, “There are advantages to having Alberta and Montana connected together. Bigger is better. Alberta is tied into the system through British Columbia and then into Washington, and so having another interconnection is not a bad thing.”
Ted Williams said someone has to find a way to build that extra transmission line south of Great Falls. NorthWestern cannot do it because the wind power would be going out of state and NorthWestern’s customers are not required to bear the costs.
As it stands now, NorthWestern’s customers are already bearing the extra costs for the instability of wind power. Because the utility must maintain certain electrical standards regarding load on the grid, it has had to purchase 25 megawatts of reserve power that is available when the Judith Gap Energy Center experiences a decrease in generation, which happens when the wind shifts.
NorthWestern was fined $4,000 last year for not meeting the standards to balance the electrical load.
While it has a “nameplate” capacity of 135 mw, the Judith Gap facility produced only 38 percent of that capacity in 2006, according to one source, which is considered excellent for a wind park.
While the studies continue to bring wind energy and the MATL line closer to reality in northcentral Montana, the farmers along the right-of-way are waiting for DEQ’s environmental impact statement to be published. They want to be fairly compensated for providing their land for the power line, according to Dutton area farmer Chris Stephens, who has been a spokesperson for an informal group of landowners.
By Nancy Thornton- Acantha reporter
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