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Public land opening up to wind industry -- Montana 500 MW test case

A 500 MW wind project in Montana is moving forward as a test case for development of wind power on land owned by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The project is the first to proceed under new guidelines issued by the federal authority aimed at protecting land and endangered species while expediting the approval process for wind development on public lands in nine western states. The goal is to see installation of more than 3240 MW of wind energy on BLM land within ten to 15 years, up from 500 MW today.

"We're processing an application for the Valley County Wind Project in northern Montana," says the BLM's Ray Brady. It is the first under the umbrella of the BLM's Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) process and should be completed in the next couple of months, he says.

That will allow the Texas company involved, Wind Hunter, to move forward and begin actual preparations. "It's a process that makes sense," says Jim Jensen of Power Engineers, a consulting firm working with Wind Hunter. "Basically, BLM is inviting wind projects on public lands and this one will set the standard."

Complicated permitting

While Jensen says Wind Hunter has been thrilled with BLM co-operation thus far, he remains cautious. "We've had a complicated permitting process because so many state and federal agencies are involved," he says. "The process is co-ordinated but approvals come from individual agencies. This site has a capacity up to 500 MW and occupies a large tract of BLM land. You can't just put anything on public land without a lot of steps."

The PEIS amends 52 land-use plans and sets guidelines for road construction, erosion control, rental fees, habitat fragmentation, wetland protection and related issues on 174 million acres. Individual wind projects still require site specific analyses and permitting, but under the PEIS the approval process is expected to be shortened from two years or more to less than a year.

Increase in development

Work on developing the PEIS began in October 2003 and included extensive community meetings across the West, along with opportunities for public comment. "One main component of the review involved the development of best management practices," says Brady. "We've seen a significant increase in wind development on BLM land and this all came about because of that increased interest. What we want is to bring more projects online in a timely manner."

Of BLM's 174 million western acres, about 20.6 million have wind energy potential. But only 160,000 of those acres have what the bureau considers economically developmental wind energy potential. "Much of that difference relates to transmission," says Brady. "A lot of the land is somewhat remote, which makes transmission a constraint."

The review and projections are part of a collaborative effort with the US Department of Energy. Brady expects most upcoming projects to be between 100-200 MW. The new policy affects BLM administered lands in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Not included are Arizona and California, which deal with wind energy issues at the local level.

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