Company secures deal for $253 million wind farm and energy storage in central Montana

Construction will begin this summer on a new concept in Montana that the developers say solves the inconsistency of wind power.

By Linda Halstead-Acharya MONTANA FREE PRESS

RAPELJE – Houses are rare on the high plains that stretch between Rapelje and Reed Point. Although remote, the area is about to mark a first in Montana: a place where wind energy will be stored.

Last month, Stillwater County approved two phases of a wind farm that will incorporate large batteries to store energy. The new concept in Montana addresses what skeptics complain about wind power: that it is inconsistent and unreliable.

Batteries offer a way to compensate for the vagaries of the wind by storing excess energy when demand is low and harnessing that energy when demand peaks.

The permit was the last box to tick for the Beaver Creek II and III wind farms. Each project is rated at 80 megawatts of power planned for NorthWestern Energy’s system via transmission lines approximately four miles from the proposed farms. Caithness Beaver Creek, the New York-based company developing the wind farms, estimates the two phases could power nearly 115,000 homes.

Although wind farms are not new to Montana, the incorporation of batteries is.

Derrel Grant, Caithness Beaver Creek’s senior vice president of development, calls the model a hybrid wind and storage facility.

“It’s a unique use of technology,” he said. “It may be new to Montana, but it’s not new to the industry.”

In some places, developers have harnessed the power of wind to lasso using water as a “battery”. When wind power exceeds demand, water is pumped into an elevated reservoir. When demand exceeds production, water is released, flows, and creates hydroelectric power.

The Beaver Creek projects, however, will rely on lithium-ion batteries that will “firm up” the wind power by smoothing out the highs and lows of the wind so output is more consistent. Grant describes the batteries as a bit like those in an electric car, but on a much larger scale. They will be stored in containers that occupy approximately three acres of the wind farm. According to Caithness, the batteries will provide around three and a half to four hours of storage. This means that if the batteries are full and the wind stops blowing, they will produce 20 megawatts of electricity during that time.

“In the power industry, we want power to be stable for discrete periods of time,” Grant said. “Batteries can smooth out that power to put into the grid.”

Stillwater County commissioners are impressed with the technology but are waiting to see how the project pans out. Commission Chairman Ty Hamilton initially feared the massive batteries posed a fire hazard, but noted that Caithness had incorporated sprinklers into its design.

“In the energy sector, we want electricity to be stable for discrete periods of time. Batteries can smooth out this power to put into the grid.

DERREL GRANT, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF DEVELOPMENT FOR CAITHNESS BEAVER CREEK

In general, the commissioners had less to say about the new concept than about general issues related to wind farms and their construction. The Beaver Creek projects won’t be the county’s first rodeo, having recently seen the construction of Pattern Energy’s Stillwater Wind, an operating wind farm adjacent to the proposed Beaver Creek projects.

Road impacts, taxes, economic diversification and public opinion topped their list of considerations, along with a few lessons learned – all of which were central to the conditions listed in the county’s permit. Commissioners heard few comments regarding the visual impact of the proposed wind farm, but heard many regarding better communication from the company to local residents.

“We’re talking about a lot of traffic on these roads and a lot of heavy loads,” Hamilton said. “These roads are used for agricultural purposes, so we wanted to make sure landowners are alerted when these loads are expected. It was a big request from the public.

There are winners and losers among landowners in the region. Place Eder is one of the first.

The late Delbert Eder had long championed a wind farm in the area, but did not live to see it. The Pattern Energy farm is directly across from the family home, and now Beaver Creek II and III will be built on their land, which is currently used for cattle grazing and hay production.

Eder’s son, Loren, who lives in Columbus, said his father envisioned the wind farm not just as a way to generate electricity, but also as an additional resource to help pay the bills. “He saw it as growing alternative crops or improving genetics,” Loren Eder said. “It’s all you can do to make a better product.” Eder would like the energy to “stay local”, but admits he has little say in the decision.

“Without a doubt, in the [construction] process, it will interfere with grazing and it will take away from production,” he said. “It’s like building a house. The process is a hassle, but, when all is said and done, it’s worth it.

Bob VanOosten’s ranch, located several miles from the Eders, is not part of the wind farm footprint. It will not receive lease payments or royalties, but it will take care of construction-related issues.

“The existence of a wind farm there is irrelevant,” VanOosten said. “It will not give us cheaper electricity. But we are enjoying the impacts.

“For him, it looked like growing alternative crops or improving genetics. It’s all you can do to make a better product.

LOREN EDER

During construction of the Pattern Energy project, VanOosten counted 100 loaded tractor-trailers and at least 100 other vehicles passing daily – using a road that had previously been only lightly traveled by locals. The road was beaten and the dust often made driving conditions hazardous. VanOosten himself was involved in a collision when a contractor took more than his share of the road.

VanOosten isn’t opposed to the plans, but he hopes construction will be less expensive this time around.

As for the battery aspect of future wind farms, he admitted his curiosity.

“It’s a cool concept,” he says. “I’ll request a visit to see the battery complex when it’s done.”

The county permit does not address bird fatalities, a problem often associated with wind farms. Grant said Caithness carried out detailed surveys which determined the project’s impact on birds would be insignificant.

Caithness estimates that Beaver Creek II and III will employ 175 workers during the year-long construction phase and 16 to 20 permanent workers on site after completion. According to the company, the 48 wind turbines in each phase will combine to generate 4.5% of the total renewable energy currently produced in Montana.

The construction price of the two projects is estimated at 253 million dollars. The wind farms are expected to bring in $48 million in property taxes over 25 years and qualify for tax refunds in the first 10 years. To somewhat offset the rebates, Caithness agreed to pay Stillwater County about $1.265 million in impact fees — a figure that can vary depending on the final cost of the project — for each of the first three years.

“It’s starting to diversify the tax base of Stillwater County where there isn’t so much reliance on Stillwater [Mining Company]said former Stillwater County Commissioner Mark Crago, who was instrumental in bringing the projects to the county.

Ultimately, two additional phases — Beaver Creek I and IV — are planned. With the four phases on 20,000 acres, the wind farms will generate enough energy to power approximately 227,000 homes.

Caithness plans to start construction this summer. The turbines and storage facilities will be installed next spring and, barring unforeseen blockages, the wind farm should be in service by the end of 2023.

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