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Developer of Mont. pumped-storage project optimistic about securing contract

Developers of a 400-MW closed-loop pumped-hydro storage project in Montana hope 2018 will bring with it a contract to get construction of the facility off the ground.

The Gordon Butte Pumped Storage project is coming up on its one-year anniversary of receiving a license from FERC. Since that time, Montana-based developer Absaroka Energy LLC has spent much of the year on things like design of the facility and keeping track of integrated resource planning processes by utilities in the Northwest, the company's vice president of business development, Eli Bailey, said.

This work will lead into a marketing and commercialization effort that will likely kick off in the beginning of the new year, he said. Ideally, the project would get a contract in 2018, which would jump-start a four-year construction period to bring the project online 2022.

Gordon Butte will be built on private land three miles west of Martinsdale, Mont., a small town in Meagher County, and connect to a transmission line that starts at the Colstrip power plant in eastern Montana and eventually links to transmission infrastructure owned by the Bonneville Power Administration, Bailey said.

Five major utilities in the Pacific Northwest — Avista Corp., NorthWestern Corp., PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric and Puget Sound Energy Inc. — all own parts of that line and are potential customers for the Gordon Butte project, Bailey said.

The company has also been speaking with energy traders and large developers in need of integration into the system.

"It's a pretty wide pool of potential customers for us," he said.

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A facility like Gordon Butte has a lot of capabilities and is a good fit for the region, Bailey said.

He said the project can act as a large battery in the system by storing excess energy and producing it when needed, and also "shock absorb" the transmission grid by evening out fluctuations in supply and demand.

Absaroka Energy President and CEO Carl Borgquist in November said pumped storage has carbon and price benefits, when compared to gas-fired generation.

"We think there's a great solution for pumped storage compared to gas," he said during a call with environmental groups to discuss PSE's integrated resource plan.

Pumped storage itself is not a new technology, Bailey said, adding that over time, advances in equipment have meant that the technology has gotten a lot faster and more flexible.

"Even though there is older-generation pumped storage in the U.S., this would be the first of the advanced technology in the U.S.," Bailey said, referring to the project's Ternary configuration design that means the facility can react quickly and with flexibility.

Bailey said a lot of hard work is done, but much more is ahead.

"We're very optimistic, just based on the feedback we're getting from the market, and seeing how the designs are coming together," he said. "Things are clicking right along for us."