Monday, February 26, 2007

Proposed wind farm near Cut Bank may double in size

Proposed wind farm near Cut Bank may double in size
Tribune Staff Writer

Construction of the state's largest commercial wind farm would be part of billions of dollars of investment in wind projects in Montana and Alberta over the next few years, which renewable energy developers say will result from a deal announced Friday.

Somers-based Great Plains Wind & Energy LLC, the developer of a proposed wind farm in Montana, was sold to the much larger Naturener, which is based in Spain, with its North American headquarters in San Francisco.


Naturener's first announcement was its intention to more than double the size of the proposed McCormick Ranch Wind Park from 120 to 300 megawatts. That would make the project in Toole and Glacier counties even bigger than the 135-megawatt wind farm in Judith Gap, the state's sole wind farm producing at a large commercial level.

Great Plains had been developing the McCormick project since 2005, but on a smaller scale.
With the expansion, it would feature some 200 turbines spread across 20,000 acres, which the developer, now Naturener, would lease from landowners. Leases have been secured from all the landowners, said Bill Alexander, one of the original owners of Great Plains.

The $500 million wind farm is proposed for 10 miles west of Shelby between U.S. Highway 2 and the Marias River, in Toole and Glacier counties.

"This is a considerable expansion and we only had to secure a little bit more land to accommodate that expansion because the winds are so good in Montana," Alexander said.

Alexander has joined Naturener as chief development officer for North America. The other owner of Great Plains, Dave Dumon, will manage Montana projects for Naturener. The company's new name is Naturener USA, LLC.

Naturener also announced Friday that it had purchased another wind energy developer, Energy Logics (now Naturener Energy Canada, Inc.), which is in southern Alberta.

Combined, the Alberta and Montana companies were planning 1,800 megawatts of wind power. And both had purchased capacity on a proposed power line between Great Falls and Lethbridge that will ship wind-generated electricity to customers in Montana and Alberta. Naturener now owns that capacity. The company also says it plans to invest $3 billion in developing the full 1,800 megawatts by 2012.

Naturener is owned by a Belgian industrial group, a savings bank based in Spain and a private New York investor, according to the company.

With the purchase of Great Plains and Energy Logics, it's now entered the North American wind energy market. It's already developed hydroelectric, solar and wind energy in Spain.

Naturener has enough investment capital to tackle large projects that Great Plains couldn't handle, said Alexander, who declined to disclose terms of the deal. "The sale was a really beneficial move for us," he said.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer said that utility lobbyists typically dismiss wind power as being "fine for hippies living on a mountaintop smoking marijuana."

He called the Naturener plan "true economic development for Eastern Montana." The McCormick project, he added, would increase the state's commercial wind-power production by 200 percent.

Whether that project proceeds will depend on whether the 218-mile electricity transmission line is constructed from Great Falls to Lethbridge. At times, the line will carry 600 megawatts of renewable energy, 300 in each direction, to homes and businesses.

The line, planned by Calgary-based Montana Alberta Tie Ltd., is expected to spawn wind farms along it and the McCormick project is one of them.

Besides Naturener, other companies that own capacity on the line are Invenergy, the owner of the Judith Gap wind farm, and Wind Hunter LLC, which is proposing a 170-megawatt facility in Valley County. Invenergy has said it's considering construction of a large wind farm north of Great Falls.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is expecting to release an environmental impact statement on the merchant transmission line within a few weeks, said Bill Williams, a Montana-Alberta Tie vice president. The Canadian National Energy Board also is expected to render its decision on the project in a few weeks.

The company hopes to break ground on the transmission line by this summer.

"Without that Montana-Alberta line none of (the wind-power projects) will happen," said Shelby Mayor Larry Bonderud, who also serves on the Toole County economic development agency.

Both the city and county have worked closely with Great Plains on the McCormick wind farm and support the acquisition by Naturener, he said. In addition to capital, the larger company brings expertise in renewable energy development to the state, he said.

Local officials envision an entire bank of wind farms from northcentral Montana to the Canadian border, representing billions of dollars in investment. Bonderud said the proposed McCormick wind farm would triple the tax base in Toole County.

"These wind projects have the potential to lower the taxes on every farm, every ranch and every main-street business and every household," he said.

Local officials have negotiated an agreement with the McCormick developers to offset the impact of the large project, which includes payments of several hundred thousand dollars a year to local governments, he said. Landowners will receive lease payments and even more compensation if turbines are put up on their property, he said.