Colstrip Power Plant operator and co-owner Talen Energy is eyeing a wind farm on the southeast Montana plains just outside the community where the coal-fired generator is located.
Documents obtained by The Billings Gazette show a targeted project area of roughly 14 square miles in Rosebud and Treasure counties where Talen Energy, in a joint venture with Pattern Energy, is pursuing lease agreements for a wind farm of unspecified capacity.
Both companies have energy interests in Montana currently. Talen has a 30% share of Colstrip Unit 3, a power plant facing increasing pressure to close by late 2025. Pattern owns the 80-megawatt Stillwater Wind Farm near Reed Point, which sells electricity to NorthWestern Energy.
The two businesses on April 13 announced a $2 billion partnership to build 1,400 megawatts of utility-scale renewable energy projects over the next five years. Details of where the projects would be located were scant.
An answer sheet given to Montana landowners with a wind farm lease offer states that construction of the wind farm would likely begin in 2024 and last about two years, though the lease allows a five-year window for the project and construction is expected to last up to two years, depending on how big the project is.
Talen wouldn’t agree to a phone interview for this article. Calls were placed by The Gazette on March 29 and again April 16. Friday, afternoon, Talen emailed the following statement clarifying that its wind farm doesn't change its position on Colstrip:
"Talen Energy and Pattern Energy are exploring the development of a joint wind project in Montana. If it progresses, the project would be separate from the operation of the Colstrip Steam Electric Station. Talen Montana remains committed to the economic viability of Units 3 and 4."
Wind power has taken a beating at the Montana Legislature where there have been several bills intended to keep Colstrip Power Plant operating beyond 2025. After that date, owners with Washington customers will face the first of two coal power bans, the second arriving in Oregon in 2030. Proponents of the power plant argue that wind and solar energy is too intermittent.
But Talen, in courting landowners for wind farm leases, says that wind has its benefits.
“No power plant operates 100% of the time. There are periods when power plants shut down for maintenance and repairs and times when resources run low or unexpected outages occur,” goes the Talen pitch. “At some conventional power plants, the entire plant may have to be shut down for repairs, whereas wind farm maintenance takes place one turbine at a time, without having to shut down the entire plant.”
Colstrip Unit 4, for example, was shut down for all of October 2020, for maintenance.
The talking points also firm up the point that multiple resources feed power onto a grid in order to keep electricity flowing when one source of power isn’t producing much, if any, electricity.
A look at property records for Talen’s described project area shows other out-of-state companies as primary owners. WPP LLC is a business that leases land for coal mines. WPP, which stands for “Western Pocahontas Properties,” owns a substantial amount of the project area. The Texas-based company does business as Natural Resource Partners, which states that it “makes money from coal without getting its hands dirty” by leasing property to coal producers. In financial reports, NRP lists Rosebud Mine as an area where it does business.
Great Northern Properties, which holds the legacy coal acres of BNSF Railroad and was instrumental in Southeast Montana's failed Otter Creek Coal mine, is another major landowner in the project area. Others include Booth Land and Livestock Company, of Lucerne, Colorado, and PPL Montana.
Rosebud Mine is located outside the Talen Project area.
Talen Renewables Northwest states that it would use the Colstrip Transmission Line to move electricity from its wind farm. The 500-kilovolt line is the energy highway between Colstrip, Washington and Oregon.
However, Talen owns no transmission capacity on the Colstrip line. It attempted to acquire line capacity from Puget Sound Energy in 2020, but was unable to.
Talen wind turbines spinning in the foreground of the Colstrip Power Plant wouldn't be the company's first renewable energy project planned near a coal-fired generator.
In Montour County, Pennsylvania, where Talen will shutter a 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant in 2025, the company is building the 100-megawatt Solar One Project. Last November, Talen announced that it had "committed to a strategic repositioning of its power generation fleet that will eliminate the use of coal at all Talen wholly-owned facilities." The plan was developed through discussions with Sierra Club, according to Talen.
Talen and Pattern are corporate offspring of Riverstone Holdings LLC, which in 2019 ahead of Talen's pivot to renewables, began de-emphasizing fossil fuel assets on its website, leading with wind power on its homepage and "decarbonization," plus the need to manage climate change risks, in its explainer of who it is.
There is already a large wind energy project underway in southeast Montana with plans to connect to the grid at Colstrip substation.
NextEra Energy Resources will plug into the grid at Colstrip substation, to target markets in the Pacific Northwest. Its Clearwater Wind project, with 750-megawatts capacity, will be three times larger than any wind farm currently spinning in Montana. Construction on Clearwater is expected to start this year, with the project spinning its first power in 2022.
There is currently 600 megawatts of available capacity on the Colstrip line, which became available in January 2020 when Colstrip Units 1 and 2 were shut down, by owners Talen and Puget Sound Energy for being uneconomical.