Feds float Missoula substation to move wind energy west 

Tapping Montana's vast wind energy potential requires new transmission lines to get the energy to market, but efforts to build new lines have faced stiff headwinds. Proposals such as NorthWestern Energy's Mountain States Transmission Intertie, or MSTI, have stoked eminent domain disputes and been slowed by legal battles. Meanwhile, as the Southwest quickly develops renewable energy sources and transmission capacity, the window for sending faraway Montana wind energy there, partly along MSTI, appears to be closing.

Opening, though, could be more than 500 megawatts of new transmission capacity along the Bonneville Power Administration's existing transmission line that connects Montana to the Northwest. Van Jamison of Gaelectric, the primary wind energy developer that would move power along the line, calls it the "lowest-hanging fruit" and the "least impactful upgrade of transmission capacity available anywhere in the West. It doesn't involve placing a single new pole anywhere other than where poles are currently situated."

click to enlarge Missoula news
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Power lines in the Miller Creek area, where a new substation could be built to move wind power.

If Jamison's right, green-lighting this transmission project could be a relative breeze—and provide a big boost to the state's wind industry.

The proposed upgrade of BPA's line, which was originally built to move power generated by the coal-fired Colstrip plant east of Billings, would require construction of a new substation, possibly in the Miller Creek area south of Missoula.

Last week, representatives of BPA, the federal agency that supplies and transmits power around the Pacific Northwest, came to Missoula to discuss possible locations for a new substation that could be as large as 40 acres. The agency wants to build it in one of three locations along the existing power line in the Miller Creek drainage, an area already crossed by a web of power lines, or north of St. Regis. Only about 20 citizens attended the meeting at the fire station on Latimor Street. Some voiced opposition to a Miller Creek substation. In response, BPA says it will explore other options.

Beyond a new substation, the project includes proposed "reinforcements" at the BPA's Garrison, Hot Springs, Bell, Dworshak and Hatwai substations in Montana, Idaho and Washington. It would also involve stringing new wire along about 12 miles of line in Montana and Idaho.

BPA spokesperson Teresa Waugh says the entire project is expected to cost between $115 and $125 million—a bargain compared to the $1 billion cost of MSTI. She says the upgrade's 520 megawatts of additional capacity is enough to power 500,000 homes, or a city half the size of Seattle.

Montana wind is attractive to markets in the Northwest largely because, as Jamison explains, it complements wind generated in the Columbia Gorge area: There, the wind peaks in the spring and summer; in Montana, the wind peaks in the winter. Gorge winds tend to blow at night, Montana's during the day. "So we provide geographic diversity both on a diurnal and seasonal basis," Jamison says.

BPA is seeking comments on its Montana-to-Washington Transmission System Upgrade Project through July 2. A draft Environmental Impact Statement should be released in the fall of 2013, and a final EIS a year later.

Jamison hopes Gaelectric, which is based in Ireland but does much of its work in Montana, can begin constructing a 430-megawatt wind farm near Harlowton by 2015 or 2016. It would be the state's largest wind farm by far, and roughly double the state's wind energy capacity. Gaelectric also has an 80 megawatt project in the pipeline. The company paid more than $18 million in deposits to BPA and NorthWestern Energy to secure transmission service on BPA's upgraded line, Jamison says.

"It's a huge step," Jamison continues. "The No. 1 impediment to any sort of generation development in Montana has been lack of transmission capacity. We can basically blindfold ourselves, spin ourselves around and then throw a dart at a map of Montana and find a wind area that has higher wind speeds than what's being developed in Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Iowa—all of those states. That's how substantial the Montana wind resource is. We've got the land, we've got the wind. What we've never had, of course, is the transmission. So we've now resolved that, at least for the first 510 megawatts of projects in our pipeline."

Jamison calls the BPA upgrade the "last easy-to-achieve transmission out of Montana. From this point forward, new lines will have to be built."

MSTI would be the next-lowest-hanging fruit, though it's hardly low, considering the ongoing debates over the path the line would follow between Townsend to south of Jerome, Idaho, and doubts about its economic viability. MSTI's draft EIS is expected later this year.

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