Mont. wind faces another transmission hurdle

Source: Krysti Shallenberger, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 9, 2015

Montana’s ability to ship its wind to power-hungry Pacific Northwest markets may have taken another hit.

The federal Bonneville Power Administration refused to scuttle the state’s rate on a 90-mile section of a major Northwestern transmission line known as the Montana Intertie, according to a draft record of decision.

Opponents claim the agency’s refusal could cramp wind energy development in the Big Sky State.

BPA, an arm of the Department of Energy, owns a chunk of a 500-kilovolt transmission line originating from Montana’s Colstrip power plant. The Montana Intertie 500 kV line was built in the early 1980s to ship power from the Colstrip coal-fired plant to the Pacific Northwest, said Kevin Wingert, a BPA spokesman, in an email.

The 1,934-megawatt line is mostly owned by five of the Colstrip power plant owners, but 200 MW is owned and operated by BPA, with 184 MW sitting empty.

The rate on BPA’s section, known as the Eastern Intertie, drew fire from renewable energy advocacy group Renewable Northwest.

The organization filed a brief last week protesting the agency’s “pancake rate” on the Eastern Intertie section. BPA charges a “network rate” on top of its standard Montana Intertie rate on that segment, according to Renewable Northwest’s brief.

The pancake rate could hobble Montana’s compliance with U.S. EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan and stifle wind energy development as developers jockey for more capacity on the grid, the brief asserts.

“Our position is that this is uneconomic,” said Jeff Fox, Renewable Northwest spokesman. “The transmission system is already underutilized. … It makes sense to use any capacity you can.”

The BPA staff testified in its rebuttal that eliminating the rate would open the door for more renewable energy to be shipped on that line, stimulate wind development, and ensure that Montana complies with the Clean Power Plan.

The staff also urged that Renewable Northwest’s proposal to eliminate the Montana Intertie rate be seriously contemplated, according to its brief.

“Elimination of the rate would encourage use of BPA’s unused Eastern Intertie capacity … would tend to encourage development of renewable generation within the Pacific Northwest, help Northwest utilities meet needs for high-quality wind generation, and help Montana meet its obligations under the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan,” the brief read.

But the brief also asserts that “it’s not clear, however, that the IM [Montana Intertie rate] rate is a significant impediment to the development of wind generation in Montana.”

According to Fox, and Renewable Northwest’s brief, at least one utility and wind developer argued otherwise. Fox would not reveal the companies, citing confidentiality issues.

Under the proposed CPP, Montana must cut its power-sector carbon emissions 21.1 percent. The state has a resource power mix of 51 percent coal, 36 percent hydroelectric power and 9 percent wind energy.

Shipping Mont. wind

It’s not the first time battles over capacity for Montana’s transmission lines have begotten headaches for renewable energy developers. In a state touted for its potential wind energy, Montana’s shortfall of transmission lines has frustrated developers’ ability to ship wind to hungry markets (EnergyWire, March 18).

Rhyno Stinchfield, CEO of Montana Wind Resources LLC, vented his frustrations in an earlier interview with EnergyWire.

“It’s frustrating because we have such great wind but we can’t get the power out to the market,” said Stinchfield, who is developing a 20 MW wind farm in southeastern Montana. “It’s kind of the chicken and the egg. If we want to produce power, we don’t have the capacity on current transmission lines.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) in a white paper noted that the shortfall of transmission lines could trip up Montana’s ability to meet the proposed CPP’s compliance options.

However, the decision isn’t set in stone, BPA’s Wingert noted in his email, until the agency issues its final record of decision.