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Bozeman Daily Chronicle
August 5, 2013

Guest column: Montana needs fair access to renewable energy markets


Earlier this month, NorthWestern Energy officially dedicated its new 40-megawatt wind farm, Spion Kop, near Great Falls. The wind farm is already exceeding expectations and NorthWestern Energy deemed it a “phenomenal” energy resource providing cheap, clean energy for thousands of Montana households.

Energy from the wind farm will cost approximately $54 per megawatt-hour, nearly $10 per megawatt-hour cheaper than NorthWestern’s Colstrip coal energy. Spion Kop also exemplifies Montana’s famously constant and energetic winds, exceeding the productivity of wind farms in other states.

Spion Kop’s success is a timely reminder of Montana’s ability to contribute to the nation’s clean energy needs. Montana could potentially supply thousands of megawatts of cost-effective, clean energy to the Pacific Northwest, California and the Southwest.

Today Montana exports nearly half of all the electricity we produce. Most of our exported energy comes from coal plants. But coal’s contribution to the electric grid is facing new scrutiny as we are forced to confront climate change.

In fact, just last month President Obama announced his plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal facilities – a necessary step to combat climate change. Given the president’s plan, Montana must actively replace coal exports with new renewable energy or we will lose the broad economic benefits we currently enjoy from energy production.

That is why anyone interested in economic opportunity for Montana should be concerned with the Bonneville Power Administration’s (BPA’s) transmission policies.

BPA is a federal agency within the Department of Energy that controls much of the region’s transmission system. Last week, BPA upheld a discriminatory transmission fee that charges Montana energy generators 50 percent more to travel across BPA’s transmission network than any other Pacific Northwest state. The fee is essentially a tax on Montana energy to travel across a 90-mile section of the Colstrip transmission line, while energy traveling across the other 14,000 miles of BPA’s network is not subject to this extra charge. The fee is so uneconomic that it has resulted in 184 megawatts of transmission capacity being left unutilized for more than 20 years.

If this unnecessary fee were removed it could allow for the development of a 184-megawatt wind farm, earning BPA additional revenue, and creating $389 million in investment, 369 construction jobs, and 24 permanent jobs in Montana. Removing this fee would be a zero-cost way to create economic opportunity for Montanans.

In addition to its discriminatory rate treatment of energy from Montana, BPA is dragging its feet on a transmission upgrade that would present tremendous economic opportunity.


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