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Montana's largest wind farm will be built near Colstrip beginning in 2021
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Montana's largest wind farm will be built near Colstrip beginning in 2021

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Construction of what’s expected to be Montana’s largest wind farm will begin in 2021 just beyond the shadow the coal-fired Colstrip Power Plant.

NextEra Energy Resources will plug into the grid at Colstrip substation, to target markets in the Pacific Northwest. Its Clearwater Wind project, with a 750-megawatts capacity, will be three times larger than any wind farm currently spinning in Montana.

“We expect to start construction on Clearwater in 2021 with the wind farm becoming operational in 2022,” said NextEra’s Lisa Paul in an email.

Developers spent much of the past two years securing transmission access and tax abatements in the three counties that Clearwater will span. NextEra reached right-of-way terms with the community of Colstrip last summer, clearing the way for the wind farm to connect to the high end of the Colstrip substation.

There were community concerns in the power plant town that Clearwater firing up would signal Colstrip Unit 3 powering down for good, the issue being whether there was enough transmission to accommodate Colstrip’s surviving two units and Clearwater. In the end, county officials and state legislators spoke about the importance of the wind farm to the local tax base.

“The project does not need additional transmission capacity to become available on the Colstrip Transmission System for Clearwater to come online,” Paul said.

There are currently 614 megawatts of transmission capacity available on the Colstrip line that was previously used to accommodate Colstrip Units 1 and 2. Those units were closed at the start of 2020, six months after owners Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy announced the coal-fired generators were no longer economical.

NextEra expects Clearwater construction to create 350 construction jobs. Afterward, a full-time crew of 20 people will run the wind farm. Taxes on the wind farm over 30 years are estimated to be $217 million. Payments to landowners over that time are estimated to be $226 million.

Clearwater is one of three large renewable energy projects being rolled out as demand for renewables in the region increases. The other projects are PacifiCorp’s 250-megawatt Pryor Mountain Wind Farm near Bridger and Broad Reach Power’s 500-megawatt wind and solar project near Broadview. Four of the Colstrip Power Plant’s six owners face coal power bans as Washington and Oregon, responding to climate change, roll out plans to lower greenhouse gases.

The owners, Puget Sound, Avista and PacifiCorp face a ban on coal power in Washington state at the end of 2025. However, all three see a place for Montana renewable energy in their supply portfolios. They also face a use-it or lose-it deadline on their stake in the Colstrip transmission line, meaning they will not be able to continue billing customers for the line if they don’t find green replacement power for Colstrip.

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