A biting wind whipped across the snow-covered Montana prairie as Clayton Larsen and John Mattheis took soil samples from 30 feet below the surface north of Conrad late last week.
The men, who work for SK Geotechnical in Billings, are helping to build the $215 million, 230-kilovolt Montana Alberta Tie Line — a transmission line that could be the key to the future of wind development in the region.
With calls for more renewable energy increasing, new plain-looking pole-and-wire projects such as MATL are sprouting up in anticipation of the construction of more eye-catching wind farms.
The first stage of construction of MATL, which will carry up to 300 megawatts in each direction, began this month with soil testing.
The project is part of more than $2 billion in proposed transmission projects in Montana that could progress this year, with the lines a direct response to demands from wind developers who are banking on the lines to ship power from the boondocks to big cities.
The U.S. government also has a big stake in the success of MATL and other lines like it.
Last year, $3.25 billion in low-cost loans, which were part of the federal stimulus bill, was approved for 15 Western and Midwestern states, specifically to build transmission lines that ship renewable energy.
Tonbridge Power Co., MATL’s developer, was the first company to receive a loan, which could be as much as $161 million.
The Toronto-based company was one of about 200 developers that applied for funding, said Bob Harris, regional manager of the Upper Great Plains Region of the Billings-based Western Area Power Administration, which includes most of Montana, the Dakotas and parts of Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
WAPA is in negotiations with additional developers about loans for other transmission projects.
“It tells me there’s a lot of interest in renewable energy development — and typically they’re not close to the load,” Harris said.
Without new transmission projects, all the talk about building wind farms and developing other forms of green energy will end up being mostly hot air, according to industry experts.
In the past, power generation facilities such as coal-fired power plants typically were constructed close to the people who would use the power, Harris said.
However, the power delivery model is changing.
States are passing laws requiring the use of more renewable energy, but that green power often is located in remote rural areas such as windy Montana, while the demand is thousands of miles away in big cities. That generation model requires new transmission lines to ship the power.
“We are sure this is going forward,” said Bob Williams of Montana Alberta Tie Ltd., the Tonbridge Power subsidiary in charge of the construction of MATL.
MATL is the first of the proposed power transmission projects in Montana to proceed from blueprints to construction.
Four years in the making, work on the line began the first week of January with soil testing.
“We’re just drilling a soil boring for the turning point for their line,” SK Geotechnical’s Larsen said Thursday, before tromping through the snow and climbing over a fence to reach the drilling rig.
The most critical testing areas are where the line changes direction, such as the location north of Conrad where SK Geotechnical worked Thursday, Williams said.
Tonbridge has received the permits and financing it needs to build the line, which Williams said will take 18 months to construct, with the first poles going in the ground in May.
Poles will be planted in farm fields along a 214-mile stretch of windswept farmland between Great Falls and Lethbridge, Alberta.
Its immediate impact will be transporting what is now stranded wind power in Montana north to Alberta markets, where peak demand is 10,000 megawatts. The line will be energized sometime in 2011.
Williams said negotiations with the more than 300 landowners along the route in Alberta and Montana have picked up. Easements need to be negotiated before poles are installed, and final engineering is occurring now in advance of physical construction.
Three wind developers have purchased the shipping rights to the line.
Tonbridge officials said that once the transmission line is finished, $1 billion worth of wind farm investment could spring up along its path.
“It’s all about transmission,” said Bill Alexander, chief development officer for NaturEner USA and NaturEner Canada. NaturEner already has purchased shipping rights on MATL. “Markets are coming back. Energy prices are strengthening. It’s now just a matter of getting the transmission (capacity) to move the energy to market.”
Project north of Cut Bank
At a cost of $800 million, NaturEner plans to construct a 309-megawatt wind farm called Rim Rock between U.S. Highway 2 and the Canadian border once MATL is done, Alexander said.
The Rim Rock project would be due north of the 210-megawatt, $500 million Glacier Wind Farm that NaturEner completed last year in Toole and Glacier counties. Existing transmission is shipping that power to out-of-state markets, including California.
Mark Jacobson, director of business development for Chicago-based Invenergy, which owns the Judith Gap wind farm in Montana, said the No. 1 hurdle facing wind development is a lack of transmission, but building lines is a challenge. Obtaining the necessary permits and financing are the biggest obstacles to building new transmission, he said.
“If it was easy, everybody would be doing it,” he added.
Tonbridge’s approach possibly could serve as a model, Jacobson said. Tonbridge formed specifically to construct transmission projects, charging developers to use the lines.
South of Great Falls
With MATL under way, the company has turned its attention south of Great Falls.
In November, Tonbridge announced it was partnering with Irish wind developer Gaelectric, which has an office in Great Falls, to study a 100-mile transmission line between Great Falls and Townsend. That line, called the Green Line, would be a southern extension of the MATL project.
Even after the construction of MATL, Jacobson said a transmission logjam exists at Great Falls, preventing power from being shipped south to reach bigger transmission lines that eventually go out of state.
Invenergy, which already owns space on MATL, is in discussions with Tonbridge about securing capacity on the Green Line, Jacobson said.
“I think that’s a very strong idea for solving the transmission problems in Montana and providing export opportunities,” he said.
Montana currently produces about 375 megawatts of wind power. The state’s overall electricity production is 5,445 megawatts.
Approximately 4,882 megawatts of new power generation projects are waiting for access to NorthWestern Energy’s transmission queue, with about half of that total tied to wind farms, company spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch said.
That’s more wind electricity than the approximately 1,900 megawatts the state’s users currently consume from all sources.
Nationwide, almost 300,000 megawatts of wind projects are waiting in line to connect to the electrical grid as a result of inadequate transmission capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
NorthWestern has big plans
In addition to MATL, NorthWestern is proposing new lines to meet demand from wind developers, including the $1 billion, 500-kilovolt Mountain States Transmission Intertie from Townsend to Jerome, Idaho.
Rapkoch said the utility is expecting a final decision on the line from the state Department of Environmental Quality this year, and hopes to begin construction soon after that, with the goal of energizing the line by 2015.
NorthWestern also is studying construction of new “collector” lines, or smaller transmission lines, in five locations in Montana where interest is heavy in wind development, including north of Great Falls. Each of the collector projects would cost as much as $220 million. The goal is to have those upgrades completed by 2014.
“New transmission needs new generation and new generation needs new transmission,” said Rapkoch, comparing the question of whether to build new transmission or wind farms to the classic chicken-and-the-egg question.
Before proceeding with the risk of constructing the new collector lines, NorthWestern is planning an “open season” later this year in which the utility will accept bids from wind developers interested in reserving space, Rapkoch said.
NorthWestern is planning to pass along the expense of building the new transmission lines to the shippers and not existing ratepayers, Rapkoch said.
Cascade County would be seeing explosive “Texas-type” growth in wind energy if not for the physical limitations of the existing transmission system, according to Cascade County Commissioner Peggy Beltrone, who developed the county’s wind promotion program.
In Texas, 8,200 megawatts of wind power are on the grid — the most in the nation.
Beltrone called MATL a bright spot in the short term, but said large-scale wind power will be stranded until multi-state cost allocation and permitting issues are addressed and new transmission is built in the West.
“In the meantime, there will be a push to look for strategic, smaller opportunities on the existing system,” she said.
Karl Puckett, Great Falls Tribune – http://www.greatfallstribune.com/article/20100117/NEWS01/1170301