Transmission poles go up

Great Falls Tribune

by Karl Puckett

CUT BANK — Poles 140 feet tall and weighing up to 30,000 pounds have begun sprouting from farm fields north and south of here as part of a power line that its developer said will provide a $1 billion jolt to wind development in Montana.

Poles are now up along 30 miles of the 214-mile international Montana Alberta Tie Line.

MATL, which is partially financed by U.S. taxpayers, will transmit electricity from Montana wind farms to bigger markets such as those in California, according to developer Tonbridge Power Inc.

It also will provide the first transmission connection between the power grids of Montana and Alberta at Great Falls and Lethbridge, increasing reliability and creating larger power markets, company officials said.

“Montana’s way to share in that new energy economy is producing wind here and shipping it to load centers,” said Jon Etchart, chairman of Tonbridge’s board of directors.

Construction of the power line began in January with engineering and survey work; poles began going up in August. On Wednesday, Tonbridge officials gathered with Montana and Alberta wind boosters north of Cut Bank, just 17 miles from the Canadian border, to celebrate the achievement in the shadow of the hulking poles. They touted the jobs and property taxes the line and spin-off wind farms will generate.

“It’s about economic development for rural America,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

Tonbridge CEO Johan van’t Hof said the company proposed the line because it saw a need for transmission. He never anticipated the $1 billion investment he said wind farm developers now have on the drawing board as a result of the new transmission.

“This is a milestone,” he said.

Van’t Hof said 31 transmission lines cross the border dividing Canada and the United States, but MATL is the first in which users of a line— in this case wind developers — will pay for the transmission as opposed to utility ratepayers.

Three wind-farm developers and the Western Area Power Administration have shipping space reserved. WAPA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy, loaned Tonbridge $160 million from funds made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for transmission projects that facilitate renewable energy development.

The total cost of the project is $220 million, van’t Hof said.

“This is a very large-scale project for Rocky Mountain,” said Greg Darkenwald, project manager for Rocky Mountain Contractors of Helena, which is constructing the line. Darkenwald said Rocky Mountain is employing 80 people directly as a result of the project, and 125 to 130 people when the workers for 13 subcontractors are added in. The total is 250 new jobs after adding the positions created at businesses in Shelby and Cut Bank that serve construction workers, he said.

To date, poles, which average 140 feet tall, have been put up along a 30-mile stretch from just south of Cut Bank.

A total of 1,700 wooden H frame wooden poles and steel monopoles weighing between 22,000 and 30,000 pounds each will be put up along the entire stretch of the line.

A 130-ton crane is needed to assemble the poles and plant them about 20 feet in the ground.

The poles were manufactured by Thomas and Betts in Hager City, Wisconsin.

NaturEner USA of San Francisco, one of the developers with capacity reserved on the line, is planning to construct a 309 megawatt wind farm called Rim Rock Wind at a cost of $750 million as soon as MATL is energized, said NaturEner CEO Jose Sanchez, who attended the groundbreaking.

“It’s fully developed and ready to go,” he said.

Power from the line, which will be the company’s largest in North America, will be marketed to Alberta and California, Sanchez said.

NaturEner already operates a 210-megawatt wind farm in Glacier and Toole counties. Rim Rock is 25 miles due north of that project.

The company chose to develop wind farms in Montana because of “amazing wind,” an easy permitting process and tax incentives offered by state and federal governments, Sanchez said.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., predicted the state will produce more renewable energy than fossil fuel-fired electricity in 10 to 15 years.

Wind used to be a scourge in the state, he said.

“Now we’re harnessing that wind, making something out of it,” he said.

The first phase is 100 miles, stretching from a new electrical substation under construction south of Cut Bank north to Lethbridge, Tonbridge’s Bob Williams said. Construction is scheduled for completion in January or February.

The second phase, which is scheduled to be done by fall 2011, stretches from southeast of Cut Bank to Great Falls.

However, obstacles still remain.

On the northern stretch of the line, Tonbridge has moved to condemn the right-of-way of one landowner. That case is pending in Glacier County District Court. For now, Rocky Mountain is working around that area, Williams said. Additionally, five landowners along the southern stretch of the project are challenging a decision by the state Department of Environmental Quality that allowed work to occur within 50 feet of wetlands. Williams said the appeals should not cause a delay in the schedule of the project.