Kamis, 19 September 2013

Wind energy advocates have long touted Montana's wind energy potential while wistfully eyeing markets outside the immediate region. Those markets are all but inaccessible, they say, because the state lacks the transmission capacity to reach them.

A relatively simple upgrade of the Montana-to-Washington transmission line would greatly increase that capacity and allow the state to better live up to its wind energy potential - and just such an upgrade is currently under consideration by the Bonneville Power Administration.

BPA, which is based in Portland, Ore., and is part of the U.S. Department of Energy, is a nonprofit federal agency that funds itself through sales of its power and transmission services.

For years now, it has fielded requests for transmission service from throughout the Northwest region. However, it in order to fill those transmission requests it would first need to upgrade its existing transmission system from Garrison in western Montana to west of the Cascades in Washington, including adding a new substation. The estimated cost would be about $150 million.

Unfortunately, this promising project appears to be grinding slowly through the bureaucratic gears. BPA has only just begun to prepare an environmental impact statement, and does not expect to have a final EIS ready until late 2014.

There's no reason for the review to take so long. In fact, Montana's Sen. here Max Baucus called for the review to be completed by no later than the middle of 2014 in his letter to President Barack Obama on energy and climate change policy earlier this summer. Baucus described the Montana-to-Washington transmission line upgrade as a priority in his 15-point letter, right after Keystone XL pipeline approval and before carbon sequestration funding. In his letter, Baucus called the upgrade one "immediate source of relief" from the state's transmission problems.

The upgrade would mean adding 600 megawatts of capacity to the existing 500-kilovolt transmission line that runs from Colstrip to Washington, which is now 30 years old. All of this would be accomplished within the current transmission line footprint. Of particular interest to Missoulians, a single substation would have to be added to the line, and three of eight possible locations are along Miller Creek. Four other options are near St. Regis and one is by Alberton.

Many Missoulians expected a substation nearby when the original line went in 30 years ago; it would help a growing city meet growing demand for reliable power.

Jeff Fox, Montana policy manager for the Renewable Northwest Project, says the upgrade itself presents "tremendous economic opportunity." The state's wind power industry has seen impressive growth in recent years, with more than $1.6 billion in capital investments resulting in 650 megawatts of wind power. The industry funds hundreds of temporary construction jobs and about 100 permanent jobs in Montana.

But the majority of the wind energy produced is sold to markets outside the state. Fox says the Montana-to-Washington transmission line upgrade could carry enough wind power to satisfy the energy needs of 150,000-200,000 households.

BPA is accepting public comments on the project until Oct. 31. Western Montanans, and Missoulians in particular, ought to seize this opportunity to weigh in and let BPA know that the transmission upgrade, including the new substation, is fully supported - and ought be expedited.

Mail comments to the Bonneville Power Administration, P.O. Box 14428, Portland, OR 97293-4428, or email comment@bpa.gov. Be sure to refer to the "Montana-to-Washington Transmission System Upgrade Project."

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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