Tester co-authors measure to promote clean energy

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

Senate Democrats expect to unveil a plan Thursday promoting green energy development in rural Montana and other areas rich in renewables, but short on infrastructure.

The plan contained in two bills, co-authored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would tap tax-exempt energy bonds and low-interest federal loans to link rural renewable energy projects to urban areas.

The loans would come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while the exempt bonds would be issued by rural cooperatives or state and local governments.

“Montana’s got a whole lot of potential to be a world leader in renewable energy, and we will be. But right now there are roadblocks in getting that energy where it needs to go,” Tester said.

Those roadblocks to market result in “stranded wind” across Montana, which ranks fifth nationally in wind energy potential, but often lacks the transmission lines to deliver wind power. The state faces a similar challenge with coal energy, which Montana lacks the infrastructure to maximize.

“The big problem, especially in Montana is it’s so hard to move power, especially out of state because of the lack of capacity, substantive capacity,” said Gary Wiens of the Montana Electric Cooperatives Association.

Wiens said cooperatives began talking to Tester a couple years ago about improving transmission between rural and urban areas. What’s missing is the affordability of connecting renewable energy projects to high-voltage transmission line. Currently the only USDA low interest loans for rural transmission projects connect one rural area to another. Loans for projects connecting rural areas to urban ones are possible, but only at higher interest rates that make the connections impractical.