The open country north of Great Falls stretching to the Canadian border – long known for its wheat – may be about to see an explosion of a new crop.
Harvested from towers twice as tall as the old Milwaukee Depot, with blades that reach nearly 400 feet into the sky, that crop is wind.
The growth hinges on regulatory approval and construction of the Montana Alberta Tie, a 203-mile-long transmission line that would tie into the U.S. power grid at Great Falls and the Canadian grid in Lethbridge, Alberta.
Three wind power developers have signed up to use the line, which would move power from up to 400 giant wind turbines, each putting out enough electricity for at least 300 homes.
The line itself and the nearby wind farms would require $1 billion in capital investment, according to the developers.
Local government officials, who would reap up to $4 million a year in property taxes from the transmission line alone, are on board. So are many landowners.
“I think it’s really going to benefit the small communities that are just dying out here,” said Larry McCormick, who owns land between Cut Bank and Shelby where a major wind farm is planned.
Other landowners have serious reservations, mostly because the transmission poles would complicate farm operations along the route through five counties between Great Falls and the border.
Great wind, no pipe
The transmission project has not been approved, but it’s cleared one regulatory hurdle in Canada. In the U.S., the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is reviewing different route alternatives.
The developer is hoping to begin construction later this year if it can gain all four permits it needs in the U.S. and Canada.
Montana has always had a great wind resource. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory rates the wind east of the Rocky Mountains in northern Montana as “excellent” to “superb.” The new line would cut right through this area.
But one of the hitches in developing the wind has been a lack of transmission to carry it to market. Conduits to other areas are particularly critical because the state produces more electricity than it consumes.
One large wind facility, at Judith Gap southeast of Great Falls, has made a go of it, selling its electricity to NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest utility. And another significant farm is proposed in northeast Montana in Valley County.
Now, Calgary-based Montana Alberta Tie Ltd., a subsidiary of the publicly traded Toronto-based Tonbridge Power Inc., is proposing the new north-to-south line that would connect Great Falls to Lethbridge and the Canadian power grid. The company was formed to finance large infrastructure projects and the Montana-Alberta line is its first.
If approved, the overhead arterial could lead to 600 megawatts of wind farm construction between Great Falls and Cut Bank in the next couple of years. That’s more electricity than the 520 megawatts churned out by PPL’s five Missouri River hydro facilities near Great Falls. The state’s biggest power producers, the coal-fired Colstrip units, produce about 2,200 megawatts.
“We have a saying, ‘If you have no wires, you have no windmills,” said MATL’s Bob Williams, who is guiding the line through regulatory approvals in the U.S. and Canada.
The 203-mile-long line – 130 miles in the U.S. – would feature more than 1,000 80-foot poles that would be erected largely across agricultural land.
Officials appreciate taxes
For years, the state has been tapping its ample coal and hydro resources to produce electricity.
Wind could be the next frontier and local government officials in counties through which the transmission line would run hope to be pioneers.
“Anytime we get any increase to the tax base, that helps all of us,” said Cut Bank Mayor Joni Stewart, noting that counties, schools and other governmental entities would share the taxes.
Cut Bank’s economic fortunes have fluctuated over the years with the oil business and Stewart said the MATL line and wind farms are being welcomed. The development would bring more people to the area and create offshoot businesses, she predicted.
In Pondera County alone, the transmission line would generate about $1 million in property taxes a year. Between $280,422 and $435,357 would be collected in Cascade County. The line also would go through Teton, Chouteau and Glacier counties.
Cascade County Commissioner Peggy Beltrone said the extra funds could be put to good use in the county’s road department.
“The rural areas in Cascade County have been losing value due to annexation of property into the cities,” she said.
The line would cost $120 million to build. And Montana Alberta Tie, Ltd. says full “build-out” of the line’s 600 megawatts of capacity equates to another $900,000 million in capital investment in wind farms.
The ripple effect from the wind facilities would include an additional $2 million in annual landowner revenue, plus $5.4 million a year in local property taxes, according to a jobs and economic development impacts assessment by the U.S. Department of Energy. The assessment, conducted at Beltrone’s request, also says the new wind development would contribute $8.6 million a year to local economies.
The wind farms, assuming they produce the 600 megawatts, also would create an estimated 115 permanent positions plus 1,000 construction jobs, the DOE assessment says.
“Even a few jobs is important to us,” Stewart said.
Wind farms planned
Developers expect wind development in Montana to pick up eventually, with or without the line. But not at the same pace or scale.
After two open auctions, similar to making a purchase on eBay, three developers snatched up rights to purchase 600 megawatts of capacity to move electricity on the proposed 230-kilovolt line – 300 in each direction.
Invenergy, headquartered in Chicago, is one. The others are Texas-based Wind Hunter LLC and Naturener, whose headquarters are in Spain.
“We won’t be near to tapping the potential for wind generation in Montana without transmission lines like this,” said Bill Alexander of Naturener.
Only Naturener has publicly announced the specific location of one of its wind farm projects. It’s a big one.
The company is proposing a $500,000 million, 300-megawatt wind farm featuring 200 turbines on the Toole-Glacier county border. It includes the McCormick property.
The wind farm would be more than double the size of the 135-megawatt Judith Gap facility 125 miles southeast of Great Falls, which is currently the state’s sole large commercial facility.
Invenergy owns the Judith Gap farm but Mark Jacobson, senior development manager, was tight-lipped about its next venture along the MATL line, saying only that it would be located between Conrad and Cut Bank.
If the transmission keeps pace, he said, “We think there’s opportunities for a number of Judith Gap-sized facilities.”
The company has encountered a number of ranchers in the area interested in participating in a wind project, he said.
Howard Lee, Wind Hunter’s vice president of business development, says the company may use the line to ship electricity from a 100-megawatt farm with 67 wind turbines that’s in the works in Glacier County. It’s called the Kimmet Ranch project.
Wind Hunter has secured the right to purchase capacity on the MATL line, but it’s still exploring options.
“We have to make sure there’s a buyer for our power before we commit to the line,” Lee said.
New model proposed
MATL would be the first “big, bulk power movement” type transmission line built in Montana since the early 1980s, said Ted Williams, the director of transmission operations for NorthWestern Energy, which supplies electricity to 350,000 customers in Montana.
And it would be the first to connect separate transmission systems in Alberta and the U.S.
The connection is expected to give Montana utilities additional purchasing options, and connect wind generators to other markets that need the energy.
In the past, investor-owned utility companies, such as NorthWestern Energy, or the federal government, such as the Western Area Power Administration, constructed transmission lines and passed along the cost to ratepayers.
But MATL, a publicly traded private company, is using a different model in its proposed “merchant” line. The company is in the business of building infrastructure, then auctioning the space on the lines, not marketing or generating electricity. And no government money is involved.
“It’s the shareholders of the company and the bankers who are taking the financial risk,” MATL’s Williams said.
Deregulation of the electricity market in recent years, which has led to the separation of energy production and transmission, has created a backlog of transmission needs – and opened the door for private companies like MATL to step forward to fill them, transmission experts said.
Tonbridge, MATL’s parent company, is telling investors that, based on the capacity auction, the line’s annual revenues should approach $28.4 million by mid-2009.
Beltrone, the Cascade County commissioner, who serves as a local government advisor to Wind Powering America, a DOE initiative, said MATL’s model to get badly needed transmission lines constructed is being closely watched.
“If this succeeds it will encourage transmission development in other parts of Montana and by extension other parts of the country,” she said.
Williams said linking Montana and Alberta was proposed in the past by the old Montana Power Co. but “it never made sense economically.”
“Then MATL came along and they took a look at it and they concluded they could make it work economically,” he said.
Best wind around
The McCormicks own 1,850 acres south of Ethridge, a speck of a community between Cut Bank and Shelby. The land is part of the wind farm being planned by Naturerner.
“We’ve had wind counts here of 73 mph,” 64-year-old Denise McCormick said during an interview at her kitchen table earlier this month.
The retired nurse turned to husband Larry. “Was it 73 or 76?”
Larry, who maintains the area’s TV translators, said he’s been interested in wind power ever since reading a magazine story on the subject around 1970. A couple of years back, he was speaking to a wind-development representative about putting up a few turbines for his own use. It was too expensive, but the conversation later bore fruit.
“By gosh, one day he called me up and said, ‘Would you like to be part of a wind farm?’ And I said, ‘Sure.'”
The McCormicks land is ideally situated for the development. Their home sits in a bowl. Up on the ridges, the view is unencumbered. It is here, on the high ridges, where wind turbines would capture the area’s best wind.
The McCormicks will receive a royalty based on how much electricity the turbines on their land generate. “Wind generators would definitely help small farmers to generate a little cash flow to stay in business,” said Larry, 65.
But the couple says jobs and taxes generated by the transmission line and subsequent wind farms would benefit the entire area, not just them.
They are eager for construction of the MATL line to begin so harvesting of the new crop can commence.
“This northwest part of Montana has the best wind in the whole state,” Larry said.
By Karl Puckett
Tribune Staff Writer
22 April 2007
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding