Montana wind power: Poised to make the jump to bigger markets?

Posted at 4:37 PM, Jul 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-12 18:37:29-04

This is the first of a two-part series on the status of wind-power development in Montana.

TWODOT – When it comes to wind-power production, Montana is a relatively small player in the region – but that could be about to change.

About 2,700 megawatts of new wind projects are on the drawing board in central and south-central Montana, with most of them aiming to sell their product into large, urban markets outside the state.

These projects won’t be completed for several years, and only then if they’re able to secure contracts to sell the power and arrange space on transmission lines to deliver it.

But with Pacific Northwest utilities on the hunt for new, cleaner power sources and space possibly opening up on interstate transmission lines, wind-power advocates and developers in Montana are sounding optimistic.

“Gov. (Steve) Bullock and the Bonneville Power Administration have taken steps to address those transmission constraints recently, and I think we’re on the cusp of moving large amounts of renewable energy out of state in order to meet the needs of Pacific Northwest utilities,” says Jeff Fox, Montana policy manager for Renewable Northwest, a developers’ group.

Bullock and BPA, a federal regional power generator and marketer, released an “action plan” last month for renewable-power development in Montana, examining the bottlenecks in transmission for such power.

The report identified about 700 megawatts of transmission space already available on the current system, and said another 1,100 megawatts should become available once the coal-fired power plants Colstrip 1 and 2 shut down by 2022.

These two older Colstrip plants currently transmit at least half their power to customers in western Washington, which is one of the markets targeted by wind-power developers.

“When the Colstrip units start shutting down, that (transmission) capacity can continue to be used,” says Stacy Gasvoda, project development manager for Haymaker Wind, a proposed 300-to-500-megawatt wind farm north of Twodot. “There is no need to abandon the transmission system that we currently have.

“It should be fully utilized by new wind or solar projects that can deliver that power, that energy across the system.”

Yet outfitting the transmission system for new wind power won’t happen for free.

The report estimates that three upgrades needed on the system would cost at least $400 million.

Mike Cashell, vice president of transmission for Montana’s largest electric utility, NorthWestern Energy, says those changes can certainly happen – but not without commitments from buyers and power developers.

“On our system, we would have to have transmission-service requests from either the developers or their buyers to drive us to make those investments,” he told MTN News this week. “The next most important step is, is there a commercial deal to be done? … To me, it’s really a supply-and-demand question.”

NorthWestern owns or controls hundreds of miles of transmission lines in central and south-central Montana, including some of the lines that would carry wind power to the West.

Cashell served on the steering committee for the action plan, which was put together over the past six months by Bullock’s office, BPA, regional utilities and renewable-power developers.

Bullock told MTN news that as he outlined an “energy blueprint” for the state three years ago, he heard constantly about how transmission bottlenecks are making it difficult to market Montana wind power to the West.

The report and the steps it outlines should help pave the way for more development in the state, he said.

“What the report really came up with are immediate availability for some transmission capability, and longer-term efforts to say, as we look forward to the future, how do we further build this out?” Bullock said. “We have some of the best wind potential in the nation, but we are an exporter of energy and one thing that we need to be able to figure out is how to get that wind to markets that not only want it, but need it.”

Next: A look at two major renewable-power projects in central Montana.