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Existing transmission, Colstrip retirements can help sell wind out of Montana

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Existing transmission, Colstrip retirements can help sell wind out of Montana

A major transmission overhaul is not needed to get renewable resources out of Montana and to markets on the West Coast, according to a new report from the Bonneville Power Administration and state of Montana.

The Montana Renewables Development Action Plan, released on June 29, stems from an effort launched in December 2017 to break open Montana's potential to develop and deliver renewable energy, particularly wind, to areas with growing demand for cleaner resources. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence data, Montana now has 703.5 MW of wind capacity and another 2,263.5 MW planned.

Included among the report's findings is that nearly 360 MW of transmission capacity is already available to move power from Montana to parts of the Pacific Northwest. More transmission capacity will be available after the retirement by July of 2022 of two older units at the coal-fired Colstrip power plant. Further, it is possible to increase that capacity by investing in "relatively minor" transmission upgrades, compared to the cost of building new transmission lines, the report said.

One of the upgrades now under review by Bonneville is the Montana to Washington project, a $140 million plan that includes upgrading five existing Bonneville substations, replacing 11.4 miles of electrical wire on portions of the agency's 500-kV Dworshak-Taft transmission line and adding a new substation along Bonneville's existing 500-kV Garrison-Taft transmission line.

The report also said the existing transfer capability of the 500-kV Colstrip transmission system that starts at the power plant can, with minor investments compared to building new lines, support a one-for-one replacement of Colstrip generation with new resources, including variable energy resources.

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Another conclusion in the report is that there a "significant" amount of dynamic transfer capability available to support developing more than 1,000 MW of wind in Montana for export to the West Coast. Dynamic transfer capability, or DTC, is needed to comply with Washington's 15% by 2020 renewable portfolio standard and is necessary for integrating variable resources.

The report further notes that Bonneville and NorthWestern Energy, a unit of NorthWestern Corp., resolved a lingering issue around who can market 184 MW of capacity that is available to transfer energy from Montana to the West, which will create more certainty for transmission purchasers.

Bonneville Administrator Elliot Mainzer and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, in a statement included in the report, said the monthslong process to bring together utilities, renewable energy developers and other interests groups has resulted in a better understanding of what needs to be done to successfully develop renewable resources in Montana.

While the state, developers and public interest groups can do their part, renewables will only be built if they are wanted.

"As Montana seeks to increase its capacity to supply renewable resources within the region, there must be an equal demand from utilities seeking clean energy," they wrote.

Releasing the report does not mark the end of the effort. Bonneville and other collaborators will keep in touch with updates on recommendations included report, while Bonneville and the state will sponsor a webinar for a steering committee created for the review and other interested parties every six months as long as participants find it of use.