Montana wind power: Big projects on tap in central Montana

Posted at 2:46 PM, Jul 13, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-13 16:46:26-04

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

MARTINSDALE – From the top of Gordon Butte, Montana’s sparsely populated upper Musselshell River Valley stretches below, dotted with the occasional irrigation pivot, ranch house or wind turbine.

But if the plans of renewable-power developers pan out, the butte and the valley will become major construction sites – a large wind farm, or two, and a $1 billion hydropower project that serves as a “battery” storage to complement intermittent wind power.

“As we look to export more and more wind (power) outside of Montana, Gordon Butte is ideally situated to provide that integration and energy storage, that can unlock thousands of megawatts of renewable energy here in Montana,” says Eli Bailey, vice president of business development for Absaroka Energy.

Absaroka Energy is developing the Gordon Butte project, which would be a pair of reservoirs just west of Martinsdale – one on top of the butte, and one at the bottom, connected by an 18-foot-diameter pipe.

Once finished, the project can generate up to 400 megawatts of power on demand, by running water from the top to the bottom. Then, the water can be pumped back to the top and do it all over again.

About 20 miles to the east, north of Twodot, is the site of a proposed 300-to-500-megawatt wind farm, on the Haymaker Ranch. The developer is the landowner, who hopes to line up contracts to sell the power to utilities outside of Montana.

“It’s a fantastic project, from an environmental standpoint, from a resource standpoint and from access to transmission,” says Stacy Gasvoda, project development manager for Haymaker Wind. “It should be at the top of every Pacific Northwest utilities’ list.”

The Gordon Butte and Haymaker Wind projects are part of what could be a new wave of energy development in Montana – and it’s all renewable power, and primarily wind.

The sites are scattered across central and south-central Montana, with other large, proposed wind-power projects near Harlowton, Bridger, Reed Point and Colstrip.

“The big action happening in Montana energy development right now is certainly in renewable-energy development,” says Jeff Fox, Montana policy manager for Renewable Northwest, a developers’ group. “We have over 3,000 megawatts of renewable-energy projects under development today.”

Most of these projects are several years away from actual construction and operation. They also won’t happen unless developers can secure contracts to sell the power, and space on transmission lines to deliver it.

“Until they have a power-purchase agreement, it’s all speculation,” says Tom Bennett, chair of the Wheatland County Commission in Harlowton.

Still, Bennett told MTN News there’s no denying the economic benefit that would flow to his county and other rural counties from a boom in wind-power development.

Wheatland County is home to Montana’s first major wind-power project – Judith Gap, which has been operating now for 13 years. The 135-megawatt wind farm north of Harlowton sells its power to NorthWestern Energy, which uses the power in its mix of electricity supplied to its regulated Montana customers.

Bennett says the Judith Gap project has expanded the county’s property-tax base, relieved pressure on agricultural landowners, and provided about a dozen jobs.

The new wind farms would be two-to-four times bigger, or maybe more.

Haymaker would be spread over 50 square miles of a 30,000-acre ranch and hook into the transmission system that now carries power to the Northwest from coal-fired power plants at Colstrip. Two of those plants are scheduled to shut down by 2022.

Gasvoda says Haymaker hopes it could start operating by the end of 2021 – if it can secure a contract to sell the power.

And then there’s Gordon Butte, which is a $1 billion project that would employ 350 people during its construction and about 20 to operate the hydro plant once it’s completed.

Bailey says it would be the first hydro pump-storage project built in the United States in three decades and the first one to be paired with wind power.

“We’ve been working on this project for a long time,” he told MTN News this week. “There are really four key ingredients to a pump-storage project … and here, you have the perfect mix of all four.”

Those “ingredients,” Bailey says, are access to transmission, access to water, the right topography and the right geology.

The project also is entirely on private land and the developers already have a hydropower license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – two more factors that Bailey says make it more likely to happen. Construction could begin as soon as next year, he says.

“We’re the only construction-ready pump-storage project in America,” Bailey says. “And it happens to be right here in Montana.”