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Montana-Canadian power line could spur energy development

In a time when border crossings have become exponentially more difficult, one proposed trip between Montana and Canada would be as easy as, well, the flick of a switch.

Montana-Alberta Tie Inc., a proposed 186-mile power line between Lethbridge and Great Falls, is moving quickly toward reality. Public comment sessions are scheduled this week in Conrad, Great Falls and Cut Bank on the project that is expected to be completed within a year.

That sort of fast-track schedule is the equivalent being waved to the head of the line at customs. Great Falls City Manager John Lawton is eager for construction to begin.

"If this happens, it will open up all kinds of possibilities for Great Falls to continue on the road to being an energy center," he said. "I think it will stimulate all kinds of energy development here that will be very beneficial to our economy."

The line, carrying 300 megawatts in each direction, would cross the U.S.-Canada border near Cut Bank and tie into a NorthWestern Energy substation near Rainbow Dam at Great Falls.

Construction of the line addresses one of the problems associated with the boom in energy production around the West: the scarcity of ways to move all that power around.

Present transmission lines are already squeezed. For instance, power moving between Alberta and Montana now makes a roundabout through Saskatchewan or British Columbia on already-crowded lines.

In 2003, Wyoming and Utah joined forces to conduct the Rocky Mountain Area Transmission Study to look at the issue around the West. The study, that included Montana, found that the transmission bottleneck put a damper on the development of coal, natural gas and wind projects.

Last year, Wyoming created the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority to, among other things, issue $1 billion in bonds to finance new transmission lines around the state.

Earlier this year in Montana, a bill to create a similar state transmission authority "died a rather miserable partisan death," said Rep. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, the bill's sponsor.

Olson remains a believer in the concept, saying such an agency would help update Montana's "rather antiquated" transmission system. It also would have helped a proposed coal-fired power plant in his district.

But Gov. Brian Schweitzer objected, saying state-run transmission lines would merely serve as a way to ship cheap power out of Montana to places willing to pay more for it.

Like Great Falls' Lawton, he's a fan of the $80 million (U.S.) Montana Alberta Tie project. For one thing, this will be a north-south line in Montana's largely east-west system, he said. It will also provide a vehicle for wind-generated power.

"It's going to be beneficial to Montana in opening up a lot of wind resources north of Great Falls that wouldn't be open otherwise," said Jose Fernandez, chief operating officer of Montana Alberta Tie.

Half the line's capacity has already been contracted by two planned wind farms near Cut Bank, he said. Great Plains Wind & Energy has contracted for 120 megawatts of the 300-megawatt line, and would send its power to Alberta.

GE Energy has contracted for 175 megawatts, which would go into the NorthWestern system at Great Falls, said Jan van Egteren, Montana Alberta Tie's vice president of marketing.

Pat Judge of the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the fact that the proposed power line has to go through the Department of Environmental Quality's Major Facilities Siting provisions "is a positive."

Montana Alberta Tie will connect to NorthWestern Energy's system, which has more than 7,000 miles of power lines in Montana, serving 310,000 customers.

"Any time we can add resources to the benefit of our customers that would allow us to bring in additional power, we consider it to be a positive development," said NorthWestern spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch.

Reach Gwen Florio at (406) 442-9493, or gflorio@greatfal.gannett.com.


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