Transmission Lines and Community

As an advocate for renewable energy, I am inspired by the strong support for clean, renewable energy across Montana. But some days, the transition from large fossil fuel burning plants to clean, affordable energy feels impossibly slow.  Recent scientific reports alarm that the impacts of climate change are more severe than they originally predicted.  Yikes!  An even hotter planet with more intense storms, droughts, and changing weather patterns.  To wean ourselves off fossil fuels we need better energy efficiency and we need to get large amounts of energy from where the wind blows and the sun shines to where people live.

As a first term legislator in 2007, I introduced the biggest climate change mitigation bill to date in Montana.   Even with huge support from across the state, the bill failed, along with the national efforts to curb carbon emissions.   Due to elevated concern and exasperation, I turned to renewable energy as the solution to our addiction to coal-burning power plants.  The devil, however, is in the details.  When it comes to developing renewable energy in Montana, the challenge is where to site transmission lines and wind farms.    Montanans are leading the way to plan for responsible transmission lines, and I’m here to tell you that your participation is vital to the ultimate success getting renewable energy to happen in ways that strengthen our communities.

Let me note quickly that while we are working to connect large-scale renewable energy to population centers, we are doing it in tandem with efforts to increase energy efficiency, small-scale renewables, and operating an efficient electrical grid.  Shifting our electrical utility system to clean energy is one of the most complicated set of issues that we face.  It requires pushing ourselves to develop renewable energy responsibly while protecting the communities and landscapes that make the West our cherished home.

Thirty years ago, we built transmission lines without much public input.  Today, stakeholders are demanding to be involved in these monumental decisions. A new project emerged in Montana to integrate community and wildlife concerns with independent research.

The Mountain States Transmission Intertie project (otherwise known as MSTI) is a 500kv transmission line proposed by NorthWestern Energy from Townsend, MT to Jerome, ID.   That’s enough power to light up 750,000 homes.   With that kind of capacity, the goal is to deliver large amounts of clean energy to key markets on the West Coast.   

These transmission siting decisions will affect landscapes and communities for decades to come. In September 2011 the MSTI Review Project was formed to bring resources and tools to all the counties in MT and ID that could be impacted by the proposed line.   This MSTI Review Project is now recognized around the West as an important model that demonstrates an innovative approach to transmission siting and outreach to affected communities.   The Project is providing an independent, transparent analysis of the proposed MSTI transmission line in order to help counties and communities better understand a number of the potential impacts, including environmental impacts.

Ideally, a grassroots process, such as the MSTI Review Project, would be conducted prior to submitting a permit application.  Communities are overwhelmed with the complexity and details of any proposed high voltage transmission line.   They are also skeptical of the utility companies’ and government’s analysis.  Stakeholders need an inclusive community process with both environmental and community values displayed visually to engage them in the process.  The MSTI Review Project has shown that public participation is critical to success and that mapping is a valuable tool that truly engages stakeholders.

To these ends, we have shared unbiased policy and scientific data with counties where diverse perspectives could be discussed and reconciled.   After nine months of analyzing the line through maps and in-depth economic and policy research, the MSTI Review Project presented its findings to counties and other interested parties at the end of May.   You can see our results at www.M-S-T-I-ReviewProject.org.

The state and federal agencies now have an important job ahead of them, and we hope the community and wildlife models will inform their decision making process.  We plan to take this project to other states to encourage robust public involvement.  By developing new tools and facilitating dialogue on transmission planning, we can shape the 21st Century electrical grid to protect our treasured landscapes, iconic wildlife, and rural communities while advancing renewable energy and finally quitting our addiction to fossil fuels.

In Missoula, this is Betsy Hands for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization and its ally the Western Environmental Law Center.  AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at aeromt.org.

This commentary aired on June 21, 2012 on Montana Public Radio.

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