NorthWestern Energy has reached an agreement with an 150-acre Billings solar farm large enough to power 4,900 homes.

Meadowlark Solar is expected to come online in 2021. The 20-megawatt project is one of several in the works for the Billings area, but the first to receive an agreement with Montana’s largest monopoly utility.

Developer Mark Klein said the project located off of Alkali Creek Road west of the Billings Airport would be built as a Community Renewable Energy Project, or CREP. Part of a bigger state plan for getting utilities to get a small percentage of their electricity from renewable energy projects, CREPs are a utility requirement under state law. South Dakota-based NorthWestern’s obligation is for 65.4 megawatts. Meadowlark Solar gets the utility within striking distance with 10 megawatts left to add.

The cost of the electricity from Meadowlark Solar won’t be revealed for several weeks, but developer Klein said the privately funded $18 million project’s margins are tight, and the rate should be favorable for NorthWestern customers.

“From the affordability standpoint, I think in terms of impact for customers, I don’t think customers will be impacted negatively,” Klein said.

Because Meadowlark is owned by a third party, NorthWestern’s customers won’t be burdened with a years-long payment plan to cover its construction costs or operations.

The solar project would be the largest in Montana.

In a press release Thursday, NorthWestern said the agreement hinges on approval from the Montana Public Service Commission.

Klein has other solar projects planned between Billings and Broadview. All are larger than Meadowlark.

MTSUN is a 480-acre solar farm located in the same neighborhood as Meadowlark. That project was delayed last year after the Public Service Commission cut contract lengths intended to promote renewable energy projects from 25 years to 15.

The shorter contracts made the renewable projects uneconomical and sparked two lawsuits against the PSC and NorthWestern, which supported the shorter contracts. Small renewable developments have already benefited from a court ruling against the PSC and NorthWestern, which requested the shorter terms.

Should larger renewable projects receive a similar decision, restoring contracts to 25 years, MTSUN, a privately funded $110 million project, could again be underway with NorthWestern as a likely customer for its electricity. The solar developer and the utility had been on opposite sides of the lawsuit.

Klein is also developing two renewable energy projects near Broadview that combine solar and wind energy generation with battery storage. The development likely won’t come online until after 2022, when the two oldest units of Colstrip Power Plant go offline, freeing up power line transmission space. The most likely customers for the Broadview power are in the Pacific Northwest.

Meadowlark would be the sixth CREP project for NorthWestern since 2011. Most recently, the utility acquired Two Dot Wind, a 10 megawatt wind farm near its namesake central Montana town. The 2018 purchase marked NorthWestern's first project toward meeting state CREP requirements in five years.

The utility had requested waivers on the CREP requirement in order to avoid cash penalties. It was criticized by state regulators for not doing more to comply.

When it came to Meadowlark, NorthWestern worked to make the CREP happen, Klein said.

"NorthWestern really bent over backwards, in terms of facilitating and making Meadowlark work," Klein said. "I've got nothing to say but good things about NorthWestern, it was clear they wanted to do whatever they could possibly do to make this project a success."

October 2021 is the target date for bringing Meadowlark power online.

NorthWestern's other CREP projects are Gordon Butte Wind, Flint Creek Hydroelectric, Lower South Fork and Turnbull Hydro.  

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