Construction of a 120-turbine wind farm is underway in Carbon County as developers scramble to benefit from a last-minute federal tax credit passed this week.
Workers are cutting roads and clearing pads for the $550 million Mud Springs Wind Ranch located 12 miles southeast of Bridger. One of the biggest wind projects in Montana, Mud Springs is expected to take several years to complete, according to project permits. At the high point of the blades' reach, the wind turbines will be 454 feet tall.
Project managing director John Huser said the four-phase development will be wired to a 230-kilovolt transmission line in Park County, Wyo. The line, owned by PacifiCorp, services Yellowtail Dam.
Mud Springs is being developed by Huser's Mud Springs Wind Project and Pittsburgh-based EverPower Wind Holdings.
Montana is often touted by green energy advocates as a state with multiple locations ideal for wind farms, but access to transmission lines with enough room for wind power is a challenge. The location of the PacifiCorp line was critical in siting Mud Springs.
"Realistically in my view, being at this for 15 years, there's only two areas in the state of Montana where you can put significant projects together, and one of them is the Mud Springs project site because of the transmission issues," Huser said.
The other site suitable is the north central Montana area along the 230 kilovolt Montana Alberta Tie Line, which channels Montana wind energy to Canada.
There is the potential in the future to upload power to transmission lines connecting the Pacific Northwest to coal-fired power plants in Colstrip, said Jeff Fox, of Renewable Northwest, which promotes responsible renewable energy development in the northwestern United States.
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Power companies in Washington and Oregon are major stakeholders in Colstrip electricity but are also facing tougher carbon emissions standards intended to phase coal power out of the energy portfolios of ratepayers in those states. As they draw less power from Colstrip, transmission capacity might open up for wind energy.
The timing of the Mud Springs groundbreaking was crucial for tax purposes. The Senate late Tuesday passed a wind production tax credit for wind projects started in 2014. The tax credit of 2.3 cents for every kilowatt hour of energy produced for 10 years was in doubt most of the year because of congressional delays. And though the credit is retroactive to last January, it's only officially been on the books since Tuesday and will expire in two weeks at year's end. The credit was part of a package of tax credit extensions.
U.S. Sen Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he will begin advocating for a 2015 tax credit for wind in January.
“Montana has tremendous untapped wind energy potential. The wind production tax credit creates jobs and diversifies our energy portfolio," Tester said. "One-year extensions don’t provide enough certainty for our businesses to plan for the future. When Congress returns in January, I will be pushing for a long-term extension of the tax credits that strengthen our economy and make sense for Montanans.”
President Barack Obama is expected to sign the 2014 tax credit bill into law within days.
Mud Springs will have to cut 1,500 feet of access road on its 18,000-acre development and dig holes for its turbine pads by year's end to qualify for the tax credit.
Huser said the frost has thawed, and the ground at the location should be workable.
Permitting for the Mud Springs project started a few years ago.