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Effort launched to unlock Montana's renewable energy potential

The Bonneville Power Administration and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock hope to find ways to remove hurdles to delivering the state's renewable energy to consumers on the West Coast.

BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer and Bullock earlier in December kicked off a roughly six-month effort aimed at creating an action plan that will address ways to break open what many see as Montana's still-unrealized potential for developing and delivering renewable energy, particularly wind.

"The wind blows like a son of a gun and there's a pretty stiff amount of demand for renewables in general," Rachel Shimshak, executive director of clean energy advocacy group Renewable Northwest, said in an interview.

Shimshak, along with many others involved in the Pacific Northwest energy industry, took part in a Dec. 7 meeting in Helena, Mont., to launch development of the action plan. Renewable Northwest's members include consumer and environmental groups, as well as renewable energy businesses.

She said members of the organization that have and want to develop projects in Montana to serve loads on the West Coast have run into a variety of roadblocks over time.

One issue is how to get power out of Montana.

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Bill Pascoe, who represented Oakland, Calif.-headquartered developer Orion Renewable Energy Group at the meeting, said there has been a shift from a perception that exports from Montana bring with it the need to build expensive and hard-to-site transmission lines. He said there is now a more general understanding that there is some capacity already available, that more transmission will become available as older units at the coal-fired Colstrip power plant are retired, and that some relatively low-cost upgrades exist.

"When you put that package together, there's quite a bit of transmission that's available to move power out of the state and I think there's a growing understand of that," Pascoe said Dec. 7.

Mike Cashell, vice president of transmission at NorthWestern Energy, said the closure of Colstrip units 1 and 2, scheduled to happen by July 2022, opens up opportunities for all to think about. He said the transmission capacity that will be available should have some sort of meaningful use in the future. NorthWestern Energy, a unit of NorthWestern Corp., is the major electric utility serving Montana and is one of six western utilities with an ownership interest in Colstrip.

"It seems like we're on the cusp of being able to do something interesting for the energy development of the state of Montana, just as we were 40 years ago when Colstrip was developed," he said.

Bullock said demands from western states for less coal and more renewables, while tough to accept at times, are a chance to maintain good paying jobs and support for local schools that energy production has provided Montana.

"We shouldn't let our disappointment also blind us to the opportunities that really exist to supply them with our vast renewable resources," he said.

Michael Cressner, business development manager for Orion Renewable Energy Group, said plans to build the 750-MW Clearwater Wind Farm would mean a $1 billion investment in eastern Montana. Much of the project would be located in Rosebud County, which is home to the Colstrip plant, he said.

Pattern Energy Group Inc. unit Pattern Development is planning two 80-MW wind projects in Montana, Stillwater and Crazy Mountain. Johnny Casana, who handles the company's legislative and regulatory affairs in the western United States and Canada, said the company would love to do more.

"A lot of the decisions that happen around this table will enable companies like ours to bring our investment dollars here," he said.

Bullock and Mainzer both said they want the effort to produce more than just a report, but an actual plan that can be accomplished. Mainzer hopes by mid-2018 to have figured out the "real and enduring" barriers to renewable energy development in Montana and how to tackle them.

"I think the answers and the solutions are out there," Mainzer said.