A public meeting on a proposed power transmission line between Great Falls and Canada, Thursday in Great Falls produced similar themes raised earlier in the week at meetings in Cut Bank and Conrad: Good for economic development, not as good for farming practices.
But there was an added thread at the latest meeting: The visual impact of wind farms on Big Sky Country.
The state Department of Environmental Quality conducted the public meetings on a draft environmental impact statement on the project, and each one drew more than 50 people.
The $120 million line to Lethbridge, Alberta, which will have about 1,000 poles, would be the first to connect existing transmission systems in Alberta and the United States. It’s expected to spawn construction of wind farms in northcentral Montana.
“We have a saying, ‘If you have no wires, you have no windmills,'” said Bob Williams of Montana Alberta Tie Ltd., the Calgary-based developer.
The DEQ will make the final decision on whether to issue a certificate of compliance for the project. The timing of the decision will depend on how many comments it gets, the DEQ’s Tom Ring said. The U.S. Department of Energy also must issue a presidential permit for the project to proceed because it would cross an international boundary.
What makes the 230-kilovolt line stand out isn’t its size. The state’s largest is 500 kilovolts.
But it would be the state’s first merchant line, Ring said. A merchant line isn’t supported by federal dollars or financed by a utility. It’s paid for by a for-profit company.
Concerns over the line interfering with farming, and strong support for the project, particularly in the Cut Bank area, where many of the wind farms are planned, dominated the first two meetings.
The trend continued in Great Falls.
Michael Odden, a Dutton-area farmer, said he didn’t want to see lines cutting diagonally across fields. He leases school trust land where a route is planned and, if that line is built, he’ll try to negotiate a lower lease with the state based on higher expenses he’ll incur farming around the poles, plus lower production.
“Build it right or don’t build it at all,” he said.
Four route alternatives were studied in the draft EIS, with MATL preferring alternative two, a 130-mile stretch extending from a switchyard north of Great Falls to a proposed new substation near Cut Bank.
The DEQ’s tentative preferred alternative, which could change, reroutes that line in several places and calls for single poles along 24 miles. Single poles are easier for farmers to maneuver their machinery around. The DEQ’s fourth alternative calls for single poles on all cropland and Conservation Reserve Program land; that alternative is supported by some landowners. But MATL has said the increased cost of installing single poles, which require more concrete, could kill the proposal.
MATL, a publicly traded Canadian corporation owned by Tonbridge Power, is offering landowners lump-sum payments for right-of-way easements, based on the fair market value of the land, said Williams. In addition, the company is offering annual payments for each pole located on the property.
Cascade County Commissioner Peggy Beltrone, who is involved on several fronts in wind-energy development and transmission planning, said northcentral Montana has a superior wind resource, but the state needs the transmission to get the wind out of Montana to market.
“Alberta is a natural trading partner for Montana,” she said.
She cited a Department of Energy analysis that said 600 megawatts of power – the line could carry 300 megawatts in each direction – would lead to $2 million in annual landowner revenue and $5.4 million in property taxes a year.
MATL officials have said the transmission line and wind farms it would spawn would result in an estimated $1 billion in investment.
About 130 miles of the proposed 203-mile transmission line would be in Montana.
Four companies that intend to build large wind farms in northcentral Montana have bought up capacity on the line.
Mark Good of Great Falls said he was all for renewable energy, but he raised a red flag about rushing to develop wind generation and transmission at the expense of the state’s renowned landscape.
“I don’t want to see wind farms in places like the Rocky Mountain Front,” Good said.
By Karl Puckett
Tribune Staff Writer
30 March 2007
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