Library from Montana
Coal mines always have been big business. Wind farms are getting to be. And when heavy-hitting companies such as North American Coal Corp., Minnesota Power and Florida Power and Light are eyeing an area of real estate, you bet it's consequential. The real estate isn't paltry; it's a lot of acreage in Oliver and Morton counties. Minnesota Power and FPL want to build separate wind farms. But the coal company says, "Wait a minute, we may want to mine where you guys are talking about putting up wind turbines. That won't work."
A single wind farm located in a scenic setting outside this rural Canadian town was featured on a postage stamp three years ago. Today, the cumulative stamp of hundreds of turbines on the views of wide-open farmland and majestic mountains here is an increasingly sticky issue. "How many is too many?" asked Rod Zielinski, a municipal district councilman in Pincher Creek, 250 miles north of Great Falls. Last year, the district unsuccessfully tried to create a wind development-free zone in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Now it's proposing changes to its bylaws to address "cumulative effect." ...Some residents value tax revenue and jobs more than vistas, and vice versa, Zielinski said. Weighing these equally important but sometimes competing values is the contentious issue in regulating the siting of wind plants, he said. "Be prepared for these things [turbines] to be there forever, like the bank downtown," he said.
An estimated 1,200 bats, most of them probably just passing through Montana, were killed after striking wind turbines at the Judith Gap Wind Farm between July 2006 and May 2007, according to a post-construction bird and bat survey. The number surprised Invenergy, which owns the farm, as well as government and private wildlife experts. "It's killing 1,200 bats a year and that's a lot more than anybody anticipated," said Janet Ellis of Montana Audubon, a bird conservation group. ...The study estimates that 406 birds, or 4.52 birds per turbine, were killed during the study period.
However, not all Montanans are ready to raise their glasses. Among the skeptics is Ursula Mattson of East Glacier. She said she is all for the benefits of wind development, but worries about a potential downside, mainly "the negative impact of these huge wind farms right in front of the most spectacular scenery in our country." ..."We don't have much authority over wind farms," said Kristi DuBois, native species coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Missoula. She likens the state's current level of knowledge about the wind industry and its potential effect on wildlife to what was known about the impact of hydro-electric facilities on rivers and fish when they were first constructed. For example, the state has very little information about migration pathways of bats, she said. Without that information, it's difficult to for the state to provide input on the siting of facilities to lessen bat fatalities from turbine blades, she said.
Spain-based NaturEner, a renewable-energy company that recently entered the North American market, officially broke ground Thursday on the first phase of a 210-megawatt wind farm on the hills between Cut Bank and Shelby. The electricity produced from the $500 million wind farm, which will be the state's largest, is bound for California, company officials said. Construction began in the spring, but Thursday was the official debut of the project for the public. The fanfare brought NaturEner officials to northcentral Montana from the company's international headquarters in Madrid.
Montanans have long dealt in water, mineral and oil rights. But for the past few years, landowners like the Phippses have been leasing their "rights" to the wind. ..."Only about one third of the projects ever make it to market." Hamlen and others cite two key bottlenecks facing wind development in Montana. First, transmission capacity is nearly maxed out. And second, a shortage of turbines continues to plague the industry. In light of the state's current situation, Hamlen cautions landowners against empty promises.
But no matter what legislators might wish, wind energy is not the same as traditional fuel. And while the relative cost of wind can be debated to no end, its biggest inconvenience is well-known: integration. Also known as wind firming or wind-stabilization, integration requires that fuel-based energy kicks in when the wind dies down, allowing for the uninterrupted flow of power to consumers. Integrating the wind thus requires a second power source, officially referred to as the regulating reserve capacity. The primary argument between the TDW and NWE is simple: Who should pay to integrate the wind?
Alberta farmers who hope to halt construction of a major power transmission line proposed between Great Falls and Lethbridge were granted permission Thursday to appeal the $150 million project to the Alberta Court of Appeals. "The only way we're ever going to stop this line is to win an appeal and get the decision overturned," said Scott Stenbeck, an attorney representing 16 farmers who live in the Lethbridge and Warner areas. Marc Clark, president of the line's developer, Montana Alberta Tie Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of Toronto-based Tonbridge Power Inc., said the ruling may delay the project, but it won't stop the proposed line.
As wind power gears up in Montana, the effects of large-scale wind projects on wildlife remain a concern: Birds may be in the clear, but bats are running into trouble. Turbine-related fatalities at Judith Gap Wind Energy Center near Harlowton were 1,206 bats and 406 birds, according to a 2007 preliminary study prepared by TRC Solutions' Laramie, Wyo. office. Roger Schoumacher, a biologist and consultant for TRC, said the bat fatality count is higher than what generally occurs in the West.
Glacier County Commissioners are discussing how to use nearly $190,000 in impact fees from a planned wind farm near Cut Bank. Commissioners were supposed to approve allocation of the fees June 9, but a decision was tabled until Glacier County attorney Larry Epstein could attend the meeting, according to the Cut Bank Pioneer Press.
Butte Local Development Corporation's Jim Smitham says consultants need until mid-July to gather more information. He says the extension is not a sign that the project has stalled. So far preliminary results show growth in the wind energy market by 20%, and Fuhrlander is building more plants in Europe to meet those demands. Smitham adds that's a good sign for the $25-million investors are investing for the Butte plant.
Travelers driving Interstate 90 west of Big Timber may one day glimpse wind turbines at the Coyote Wind project. But well in advance of that day, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is seeking comments on the proposal that would occupy a state school section roughly 11 miles west of Big Timber, four miles northeast of Springdale and two miles north of Interstate 90 and the Yellowstone River. ... Bollman said the DNRC is trying to address any concerns upfront. Since the development of Montana's first major wind farm in Judith Gap, the public has become more engaged in the process,
The state's largest wind farm, under construction immediately south of this Hi-Line town, will be finished in five months, officials with the San Francisco-based company said at the site Wednesday. Glacier Wind Project, which will produce 210 megawatts of electricity, is being constructed under the direction of general contractor Mortenson Construction out of Minneapolis. Spain-based NaturEner, whose U.S. headquarters are in San Francisco, is the owner/operator.
Wind power, unlike electricity generated by a coal-burning plant or a hydroelectric dam, is intermittent. It comes and goes with the blowing wind. It's not entirely unpredictable, but it cannot be controlled by a switch. Therefore, when wind is added to the mix of electricity on our local grid or power system, the system operator - in much of Montana, NorthWestern Energy - has to be able to call on additional power from a ready, reliable source to keep the system in balance when the wind power abates. Montana utility managers and regulators must determine the true cost of acquiring and managing this additional power if we're going to have more wind on our system and more wind power projects in the state. ...The project developers say they're willing to pay, but only if NorthWestern or someone produces credible data that determine those costs accurately for a given project. Data from Judith Gap, a large wind farm in one location, are not applicable to projects of varying size around the state, they say.
A new breed of prospector is scouring Montana's hills, but wind is the resource it seeks. Before these prospectors harvest that gold in the sky, however, they've got to secure the real key to the mother lode - permission from landowners to build towering wind turbines the size of a Boeing 747. Across the state, from Circle in the east to Ennis in the west, the race is on to lock up the best sites by courting landowners and sealing deals for exclusive rights to explore and develop wind power. Hundreds of thousands of acres already are under lease to foreign and U.S. wind developers.
For competitive reasons, wind companies don't disclose what they're paying landowners to lease property for wind farms. Oftentimes, landowners sign confidentiality agreements when leasing their property for such ventures. However, leasing information is public when school trust land is involved. ...Michael Sullivan, property management section supervisor for the Real Estate Management Bureau of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the state is considering leasing an additional 6,820 acres of school trust land to four wind projects.
NorthWestern Energy has declined an offer to buy additional power from the Judith Gap wind farm, whose operators have proposed expanding the 135-megawatt project. "We don't think it's in the best interests of our electricity supply portfolio to acquire that (expanded) project at this point in time," said John Hines, director of supply for NorthWestern. NorthWestern sent a letter this week to the project owner, Invenergy, declining its offer, Hines said.
Small Montana wind energy producers are challenging NWE's proposal to charge them more for "integrating" their product into the portfolio. The wind producers contend that the costs NWE wants them to pay are more than what "integrating" their electricity actually costs. Further, the wind energy producers say NWE's proposed pricing could put them out of business. NWE has said that its customers will have to pay these costs if the wind energy producers don't. In its portfolio proposals, NWE assumes a carbon tax will be implemented in the future, making coal a less appealing source than in the past. The proposed portfolio also assumes the customer will increase energy conservation.
State utility regulators indicated Tuesday they'll support charging small wind-power projects in Montana for the cost of adding their power to NorthWestern Energy's electric system that serves 320,000 Montanans. ...NorthWestern had proposed charging small projects anywhere from 16 percent to 44 percent of their entire income from power production. Developers have argued that the cost of adding their power to the system is minimal or nothing at all, and that the charges proposed by NorthWestern aren't supported by credible data and would kill development of small projects. The charge is for "integration costs," which are what the utility pays for additional power it says it needs to keep its electrical system in balance when accepting intermittent wind power.
Dutton resident Katrina Martin says an international power line proposed, in part, through Pondera and Teton counties in northcentral Montana is being built on the backs of the farmers. Martin has voiced her concern about the diagonal portion of the Montana Alberta Tie Ltd.'s proposed private transmission line since the company announced the project in December 2005. The 215-mile, 230-kilovolt power line project to be built between Great Falls and Lethbridge, Alta., is in the final stages of regulatory approval on both sides of the border. An environmental impact statement was published this spring that outlines three possible routes for the line in Montana. MATL is a Calgary, Alta.-based energy transmission company whose ...The existing economic development, namely farmers on the ground, has to pay a "terrible price for the speculative proposal that wind farms would be developed," Martin said. ...The line's routing options have been known to MATL for months, Martin said. "If Alternative 2 is the only one that can be considered, what's the point?" She said MATL had an "irresponsible attitude" when it comes to route selection.