Members of the Cascade County Zoning Board of Adjustment voted 4-0 Friday to grant a special-use permit to Chicago-based developer Invenergy to build a 16-turbine wind farm near Belt, which could grow to 10 times that size in future phases.
The $50 million, 24-megawatt Big Otter wind farm drew support from landowners, as well as economic development and renewable energy interests.
Supporters said the project would bring money and more green energy production to Cascade County, which is known for its hydroelectric dams on the Missouri River.
“The main issue is money when it comes to landowners,” landowner Jim Larson said when he testified in support.
Invenergy officials said the project will provide $2.2 million in landowner payments over 20 years. Three landowners are leasing 3,500 acres of farm ground to Invenergy for the project.
Some residents in the packed audience wore stickers issued by the developer saying, “Support wind, Support Cascade County.”
The project will generate $9.32 million in property taxes over 20 years, or $460,000 annually, and $2 million in wages to three or four permanent employees over 20 years, according to the company.
About 100 construction workers will be on the site at its peak.
“Hope there are many more,” said Richard Liebert, chairman of Citizens for Clean Energy of the project.
The Great Falls Development Authority, Montana Farmers Union and Montana State University-Great Falls, which began offering a degree in sustainable energy technology in fall 2010, issued letters of support for the project.
Nobody opposed the plans Friday, but concerns were raised.
Larry Irvine said he supported renewable energy, but added that three turbines will block “million-dollar” views he has of the Highwood Mountains.
“I’m just wondering if you can do anything to minimize it?” Irvine said.
Irvine and Mark Jacobson, Invenergy’s director of business development, spoke after the meeting.
Board member Leonard Lundby questioned the company’s fire-protection plan, and called a proposal for a 2,000-gallon cistern a joke. He recommended that the county require a 60,000-gallon cistern at the property cistern.
The public should be aware that the top of a turbine can catch fire, perhaps started by a lightning strike, he said. In that case, wind could quickly carry sparks that land on the ground, Lundby added.
Invenergy’s Jacobson said a 60,000-gallon cistern was too large.
“Quite frankly, I’m cutting you a huge break here with 60,000 gallons,” replied Lundby, who threatened to withhold his vote.
In the end, board members agreed that a permit Invenergy will need from the state to build a 150-by-50-by-30 operations and maintenance building will require that all fire codes be met.
The county’s special-use permit gives Invenergy 18 months to begin construction. That’s longer than the county typically permits because the company requested additional time to market the power, Jacobson said.
“We’re going to start marketing really heavy now,” Jacobson said after the vote.
Big Otter would be Invenergy’s second project in Montana. Its first project in the state was the 135-megawatt Judith Gap plant in Wheatland County.
The first phase calls for 16 1.5-megawatt General Electric turbines that will be 400 feet tall, including the blades. A 500foot maximum height was approved after Jacobson said blade technology is changing, making longer blades possible in the future.
Eventually, a 200- to 300-megawatt wind farm will be constructed in phases in the Belt area, Jacoboson said. The company has leased 40,000 acres of land for the project.
The life of a wind farm typically is 25 to 30 years, but Jacobson said facilities can be “repowered” after new equipment is installed. According to the permit, towers that don’t run for a year will be deemed abandoned and Invenergy will have to remove them.
An existing 100-kilovolt transmission line will be used to ship the power, and a substation will be built below that line, company officials said.
Deron Lawrence, an ecologist with Entrix Environmental Consultants, said not too many raptors or bats, which can be killed in collisions with wind turbines, seem to occupy the area, probably because it doesn’t have a lot of forests or wetlands, and the ground is tilled.
During a site visit, four raptor nests were found, but no golden eagle nests. Golden eagles are protected.
Additionally, acoustic microphones were set up to check for bat calls at night, which were below the national average, Lawrence said.
Additional analysis of the project by the state isn’t required under the Major Facilities Siting Act because the project doesn’t involve any new transmission, county Planning Director Susan Conell said.
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