Two proposed energy projects that include stringing transmission lines across miles of Teton County grazing and cultivated lands are taking two different regulatory paths.
A proposed 15-megawatt hydroelectric plant at the base of Gibson Dam southwest of Choteau and the accompanying 35 miles of 69-kilovolt transmission line are under the rules set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C.
The project developers, including Whitewater Engineering of Bellingham, Wash., and Greenfields Irrigation District of Fairfield have begun writing a draft license application and a preliminary draft environmental assessment, the last stage of a three-year-long process to get a license to harness the hydroelectric energy from the waters of the Sun River held back by Gibson Dam.
FERC advised the Gibson Hydro project manager on April 17 that the company must define a preferred alternative route and the basis for the route selected including environmental considerations and costs. The company does not have to complete a “scoping document 3,” something that a landowner’s attorney requested recently.
The federal agency encouraged the company to “continue to work collaboratively with all parties” and to “address all comments” in light of the fact that the transmission route was modified to come northeast to Choteau (instead of east to Augusta) late in the pre-filing stages of the federal process.
At the same time, but 30 miles east of Choteau, a Canadian company, Montana Alberta Tie Ltd.’s project would construct a 300-mw, 230-kv transmission line from Great Falls to Lethbridge, Alta., through Teton County.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is the lead agency on that project which is nearing the approval stage of a two-and-a-half-year process. The deadline for comments on that project’s environmental impact statement is April 30.
The projects have different regulatory paths because FERC licenses all hydroelectric plants in the United States, and because of the size of the voltage, according to Tom Ring, DEQ’s Major Facility Siting Program coordinator. The Gibson Dam project is 69 kv, which is below the threshold for approval under the state’s Major Facility Siting Act. That law is concerned with projects that are “greater than” 69 kilovolts. (The state is required, however, to provide a “recommendation” to FERC.)
The proposed Valley County wind-generation project in eastern Montana, for example, was recently downsized from using a 230-kv to a 69-kv line and the developer was permitted to withdraw its application for DEQ approval, based on the reduction.
Ring said FERC has no say on the location of power line projects that do not cross state lines, therefore it is not involved in the approval of the MATL line. FERC, however, does have a say in how MATL plans to provide open access to generating companies that bid on the line’s capacity, 300 mw in either direction.
DEQ was the lead agency on the MATL line because of its high voltage and its long length, 130 miles, in Montana. The MATL project could have eliminated the DEQ approval steps if it had had approval from 75 percent of the landowners along the right-of way. The company had only obtained 68 percent when the environmental impact statement was released in March.
Some grain growers, especially between Conrad and Great Falls, have declined to sign easements for the line in the hopes that MATL would design a north-south, east-west route at field edges. Much of the preferred route south of Conrad, according to the EIS, cuts diagonally across cultivated fields.
To make it easier on the farmers, MATL proposed that it would compensate them for the ag losses, besides providing a payment for the easement and an annual payment for each pole.
MATL Vice President Bob Williams said recently that Eric DeVuyst, Ph.D., has revised the computer program or model he developed last year to incorporate feedback on farming practices used in northcentral Montana.
“The modeling work will be completed soon. The remaining work consists of validating the model using farming inputs, crop-rotation practices and yields typical for northcentral Montana,” Williams said.
Ring said most of the comments on the MATL line received so far range from those of supporters of the line to concerned people who want a more detailed analysis of the cumulative effects that take wind farms into the analysis.
MATL has awarded its capacity to three wind park developers that want to build in Glacier, Toole and Pondera counties. Because most wind turbines generate 1.5 megawatts, but, on average, are only producing at 30 percent capacity, the wind developers would have to either erect many more turbines or build alternative generation facilities to meet their contracts with MATL.
In turn, MATL has recently upgraded its proposed project by adding higher-capacity conductors and heavier poles so that it could upgrade to 400 megawatts each way, depending on the success of the project and further approvals down the road. That has added to the total cost of the project, set at about $114 million (U.S. currency) in fiscal reporting documents on the company owner’s Web site, www.tonbridgepower.com.
Also in the fiscal report is information regarding MATL’s capital resources. Company representatives have stated recently that Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed “clean and green” legislation would provide a 75-percent tax break that would enable the company to move ahead with the project, otherwise, the “bankability of the project” is impaired.
Although the bill has had a rough time in the divided Legislature, being defeated in committee twice, the tax proposal is now attached to Senate Bill 220. Under its provisions, MATL would pay a 3 percent property tax rate (instead of 12 percent) because it would service wind-generation projects.
For example, Teton County was projected to receive $547,426 annually from the MATL line but that would decrease to $136,856 if the legislation passes.
When asked what the go-no-go point is in terms of state tax relief, Williams said, “I cannot comment on what may or may not constitute a go-no-go point at this time, but what I can say is Montana Alberta Tie remains hopeful that a solution will be found that will enable its project and other Montana energy developments to proceed.”
If, and when, the Gibson Dam hydroelectric plant and the MATL project receive regulatory approvals, they both will have the right to use eminent domain laws, if negotiations with landowners fail. At that point, a court would set compensation for use of the land.
The deadline to comment on the MATL draft environmental impact statement is April 30. The EIS is available on the Web site, deq.mt.gov. Comments should be sent by e-mail to MATL@mt.gov or to Greg Hallsten, Director’s Office, Montana DEQ, PO Box 200901, Helena, MT 59620-0901.
For more information on the Gibson Dam project, visit the Web site, www.gibsonhydro.com.
By Nancy Thornton- Acantha reporter
26 April 2007
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