A Federal Agency is Blocking Montana Renewable Energy Development

by Anne Hedges

Should the federal government impose a roadblock to clean energy development in Montana? Should it squash Montana wind energy development by imposing an extra charge that ensures Montana wind can’t compete in out-of-state electricity markets? You may think that’s what could happen in a President-elect Trump Administration, but it’s already happening right now.

Judith Gap Wind Farm

Judith Gap Wind Farm

A little known federal agency – the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) – controls about 15,000 miles of electric transmission lines in the Pacific Northwest, including some lines west of the continental divide in Montana. For years this federal agency has imposed two fees (i.e., a double charge) on any company wanting to transmit electricity over one 70- mile stretch of transmission line in Montana to elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The transmission system is supposed to be regional, but for antiquated and largely unknown reasons transmission over this short section of transmission line to other areas on BPA’s network is subject to two charges. The double charge makes Montana’s world-class wind resource less competitive in out-of-state electricity markets that want clean energy.

In fact, that section of line is largely unused due to this additional charge. Nearly 200 megawatts of transmission capacity is just sitting idle on this stretch of line. (For reference the Judith Gap wind farm is 135 megawatts in size and NorthWestern Energy’s interest in the Colstrip plant is about 200 megawatts). The double charge is stifling wind development in Montana. It’s time to do something about it – and we are. MEIC and Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, are formally asking BPA to eliminate this double charge. Our success is critical to moving forward with clean energy development in Montana.

The residents in populous Oregon, Washington, and California want cleaner energy. Montana happens to have the second best wind resource in the nation and could help meet that demand. Wind developers want to build wind farms in Montana and send the electricity they generate west, but they have to use the existing transmission system to do so. Unfortunately, the double charge makes doing so uneconomic and prevents it from happening.

For years Renewable Northwest, a coalition of renewable energy developers and clean energy advocates, has tried to persuade BPA to eliminate this double charge on Montana wind. But West Coast utilities have argued for keeping it. Their shallow arguments make it appear that they just want to prevent competition from lower cost resources. BPA has repeatedly agreed with the utilities and effectively barred Montana wind from competing with other generation sources. As a result, nearly 200 megawatts of transmission capacity that could otherwise support Montana wind development remains unused. That does nothing but hurt consumers on the West Coast, and economic development in Montana. The biggest loser in all this, of course, is the environment.

Building new transmission lines in Montana is difficult-to-impossible, given concerns about private property rights and the use of eminent domain powers. But, at the very least, existing transmission lines should be put to full use. Montana’s outstanding wind resource can provide West Coast consumers with the clean energy they demand, but only if the market is fair. With this case, MEIC and its allies are hoping to bring about that result.