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Gregori abruptly retires from Southern Montana

Embattled Great Falls native Tim Gregori, who dreamed big about Montana rural co-ops producing their own low-cost power, retired effective Tuesday as general manager of Billings-based Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative.

"It's huge," Great Falls City Commissioner Bob Jones said. "He filled out his retirement papers and left."

The surprise announcement by officials of Gregori's departure threw the atmosphere around an already fluid Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Southern Montana into even more turmoil.

Officials also disputed the reported manner in which a temporary replacement for Gregori had been named. Jones said he objected to the fact several Southern Montana members were not even notified
of Gregori's absence or the other man's appointment until after the fact.

"It's about three years overdue, in all honesty," said state Public Service Commission Chairman Travis Kavulla of Gregori's departure. "It seems that the house of cards is collapsing."

Great Falls city officials announced Gregori's departure at an agenda-setting meeting in the Civic Center on Wednesday afternoon.

Jones, who chairs the Electric City Power Board, had a mixed reaction to Gregori's retirement.

"A leader should lead through the most troublesome times," Jones said after the meeting. "Sometimes, I'd like to say I'm pleasantly pleased, but it's also upsetting." He questioned why Gregori got out at such
a critical time.

Gregori and city leaders had feuded during the last two years as the financial condition of both Southern Montana and Electric City Power worsened. ECP is mired in $5.4 million of red ink; Southern Montana reported last week its assets were $21.4 million less than its liabilities.

Gregori did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Dave Kelsey, a Southern Montana board member who represents Yellowstone Valley Electric, said he was told Gregori's departure means the retiree will not be available to testify at a hearing of creditors
scheduled to take place in Billings on Nov. 17.

City and Yellowstone Valley officials and Kavulla expressed some concern that Gregori would not be at the hearing to answer questions. Kavulla said there were only one or perhaps two people who knew
major details of what was going on at Southern Montana — Gregori and attorney Jon Doak of Billings.

Yellowstone Valley Electric has filed an exception with the court about Doak representing the co-op in the bankruptcy matter, citing potential conflicts of interest.

Officials including Jones, meanwhile, questioned why Alan See, general manager of Ashland-based Tongue River Electric since 2004, was appointed temporarily to fill in for Gregori without full board

Kelsey said he understood See was appointed by Board Chairman William FitzGerald, which Kelsey said was improper. Kelsey said officials will add the appointment of See to "a long list" of improper activities by Southern Montana. FitzGerald could not be reached.

City officials said they may object to See's appointment at the Nov. 17 hearing, although Kelsey said there is a possibility the hearing will be postponed because of the latest developments.

Kelsey agreed there is a possibility that Gregori's retirement will increase the chance the Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization could turn into Chapter 7 liquidation.

"In my mind, there's no reason to keep it going," Kelsey said.

Terry Holzer, general manager of Yellowstone Valley Electric, said he thinks Southern Montana's collapse came about with the pairing of "a strong-willed manager and a board that did not offer critical thinking."

"For us, this is new information," Great Falls City Attorney James Santoro said Wednesday. "We feel this now will support either the appointment of an examiner or an appointment of a trustee. The city and
the taxpayers are entitled to integrity of the process." Santoro said an examiner would be something akin to an independent prosecutor, while a trustee could oversee the operations of Southern Montana.

Jones said Gregori leaving creates a major new wrinkle.

"I think it puts everything out on the table," Jones said. "It makes anything and everything possible at this point in time."

"I thought it would be inevitable that he would end up leaving," City Commissioner Bill Bronson said.

"This is a whole different ballgame," Kelsey said.

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Richard Ecke at
, or at 406-
791-1467 or 800-438-6600.

20 June 2011 Last updated at 08:24 ET
World's oceans in 'shocking' decline
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News
The oceans are in a worse state than previously suspected, according to an expert panel of scientists.
In a new report, they warn that ocean life is "at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history".
They conclude that issues such as over-fishing, pollution and climate change are acting together in ways that have not previously been recognised.
The impacts, they say, are already affecting humanity.
The panel was convened by the
International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO), and brought together experts from different disciplines, including coral reef ecologists, toxicologists, and fisheries scientists.
Its report will be formally released later this week.
"The findings are shocking," said Alex Rogers, IPSO's scientific director and professor of conservation biology at Oxford University.
"As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realised.
"We've sat in one forum and spoken to each other about what we're seeing, and we've ended up with a picture showing that almost right across the board we're seeing changes that are happening faster than we'd thought, or in ways that we didn't expect to see for hundreds of years."
These "accelerated" changes include melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, sea level rise, and release of methane trapped in the sea bed.
Fast changes
"The rate of change is vastly exceeding what we were expecting even a couple of years ago," said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral specialist from the University of Queensland in Australia.
"So if you look at almost everything, whether it's fisheries in temperate zones or coral reefs or Arctic sea ice, all of this is undergoing changes, but at a much faster rate than we had thought."
But more worrying than this, the team noted, are the ways in which different issues act synergistically to increase threats to marine life.
Some pollutants, for example, stick to the surfaces of tiny plastic particles that are now found in the ocean bed.
This increases the amounts of these pollutants that are consumed by bottom-feeding fish.
Plastic particles also assist the transport of algae from place to place, increasing the occurrence of toxic algal blooms - which are also caused by the influx of nutrient-rich pollution from agricultural land.
In a wider sense, ocean acidification, warming, local pollution and overfishing are acting together to increase the threat to coral reefs - so much so that three-quarters of the world's reefs are at risk of severe decline.
Carbon deposits
Life on Earth has gone through five "mass extinction events" caused by events such as asteroid impacts; and it is often said that humanity's combined impact is causing a sixth such event.
The IPSO report concludes that it is too early to say definitively.
But the trends are such that it is likely to happen, they say - and far faster than any of the previous five.
"What we're seeing at the moment is unprecedented in the fossil record - the environmental changes are much more rapid," Professor Rogers told BBC News.
"We've still got most of the world's biodiversity, but the actual rate of extinction is much higher [than in past events] - and what we face is certainly a globally significant extinction event."
The report also notes that previous mass extinction events have been associated with trends being observed now - disturbances of the carbon cycle, and acidification and hypoxia (depletion of oxygen) of seawater.
Levels of CO2 being absorbed by the oceans are already far greater than during the great extinction of marine species 55 million years ago (during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum), it concludes.
Blue planet
The report's conclusions will be presented at UN headquarters in New York this week, when government delegates begin discussions on reforming governance of the oceans.
IPSO's immediate recommendations include:
  • stopping exploitative fishing now, with special emphasis on the high seas where currently there is little effective regulation
  • mapping and then reducing the input of pollutants including plastics, agricultural fertilisers and human waste
  • making sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon dioxide levels are now so high, it says, that ways of pulling the gas out of the atmosphere need to be researched urgently - but not using techniques, such as iron fertilisation, that lead to more CO2 entering the oceans.
"We have to bring down CO2 emissions to zero within about 20 years," Professor Hoegh-Guldberg told BBC News.
"If we don't do that, we're going to see steady acidification of the seas, heat events that are wiping out things like kelp forests and coral reefs, and we'll see a very different ocean."
Another of the report's authors, Dan Laffoley, marine chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas and an adviser to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), admitted the challenges were vast.
"But unlike previous generations, we know what now needs to happen," he said.
"The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now."
Southern Wants Restraining Order on City and ECP
By Charlie Keegan
Story Created: May 10, 2011 at 10:12 PM MDT
Story Updated: May 10, 2011 at 10:12 PM MDT

The bad blood between the City of Great Falls and Southern Montana Electric isn't getting any better. Southern wants a restraining order to keep the City bound to its contract. Meanwhile, the City still wants out.

District Judge Kenneth Neill didn't file the restraining order after a status hearing Monday. Neill will decide on a motion for a preliminary injunction after a hearing on June 1st.

In its request, Southern says this action is necessary to protect its financial integrity and the roughly 50,000 Montanans who rely on the electricity it supplies.

Great Falls City Attorney James Santoro says his initial reaction to seeing the request was shock.

He responded to the motion within two days questioning the basis of the request. “We felt the TRO [temporary restraining order] and the preliminary injunction were meritless and it was not the proper procedure at this stage. But also, more importantly, that we just never did breach, we still haven't breached, there's still no intention to breach any contract with our customers,” Santoro says.

The City sued Southern earlier this year attempting to leave its contract and get out of the electric business.

Click Here For The KFBB-TV Story Movie Link

By CLAIR JOHNSON Of The Gazette Staff | Posted: Friday, April 22, 2011 4:30 pm |

Southern Montana Electric approves rate increase
The Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative on Friday approved a wholesale rate increase for it co-op members.
The board approved a 4.5 percent increase, effective this month. The increase comes four months after a 4.5 percent increase in December.
"It's unfortunate but necessary," said John Prinkki, a Southern board member and president of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative based in Columbus.
Voting for the increase were board members representing Mid-Yellowstone Electric Cooperative in Hysham, Fergus Electric Cooperative in Lewistown, Tongue River Electric Cooperative in Ashland and Beartooth.
Southern member representatives from the Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative and from Electric City Power of Great Falls, which is that city's electric utility, voted against the increase.
Yellowstone Valley Electric and Great Falls are suing Southern to leave the Billings-based organization, which is a private corporation created by its members and funded by wholesale electricity sales to provide power to members. Southern is building the Highwood Generation Station, a natural-gas-fired power plant near Great Falls.
Tim Gregori, Southern's general manager, said the increase is necessary because of volatility in the short-term rates for power.
Spring runoff is happening a little sooner than usual, producing more hydropower in the Columbia Basin, there is more wind power in the market and the demand for power is flat, he said. All of which is driving down the short-term price of electricity, he said.
The wholesale price increase is needed for Southern to balance its revenues with expenses in a fluctuating market, Gregori said.
Southern had contemplated a 4.5 percent increase in 2011 and had hoped it would be in December, Gregori said, "but we had to accelerate it."
Gregori said that if member co-ops pass on the increase to their customers, it would amount to $2.50 for a typical customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours.
Arleen Boyd, a Beartooth board member who attended Southern's meeting, said Beartooth customers are just now seeing December's rate increase reflected in their bills because the co-op did not immediately pass it on. Retail rates typically reflect about half of the wholesale increase.
The discussion about a rate increase occurred during Southern's regular meeting and in a closed session of most board members that lasted about 50 minutes.
Prinkki initially requested a caucus for individual co-ops to discuss Gregori's recommendation. The Southern board then went into a closed session to further discuss the issue before returning to vote in a regular session.

A Montana John Deere dealer is now selling wind turbines, along with tractors and combines, as a new member of a national network that puts equipment needed to harvest wind and food under one roof.
"We're just tipping our toe in the cold water," said Jed Fulbright, a service technician with Moodie Implement Co., of the new concept.
Moodie, located on Havre Highway north of Great Falls, finished erecting a 50-kilowatt wind tower Tuesday.
The turbine, which cost $360,000 to purchase and install, is expected to begin generating electricity today. Moodie owners also want it to generate turbine sales, serving as an advertisement — "'hey, we're out here selling them,'" Fulbright said.
Think One Energy Services erected the turbine for Moodie. The Bozeman-based renewable-energy company also agreed to install the turbines Moodie sells. Unlike a combine that's sold and delivered, turbines need to be installed, Think One President Rusty Harris said.
"Great Falls has a very good wind resource," said Harris, as falling snow whipped sideways across the installation site at Moodie.
NorthWestern Energy, the state's largest utility, awarded Moodie a $20,000 grant for the renewable energy project.
The 140-foot tower and its 26-foot-long blades dwarf the huge farm equipment on the ground, but turbines and farm machinery are a natural fit, Fulbright said.
For one, he said John Deere is well-suited to sell wind equipment because it has so many locations. And those businesses already have trained parts and sales departments in place that are capable of handling the diversification, he said.
"By the way, we're local and do service calls," Fulbright added.
Moodie has joined a turbine distribution network called Harvest the Wind, which was created by BTI Wind Energy in Greensburg, Kan. The network was the brainchild of the BTI John Deere dealership after Greensbrug decided to rebuild as the greenest city in America following a devastating tornado.
BTI Wind Energy distributes Endurance Wind Power Turbines, which are manufactured in Surrey, British Columbia, to affiliates across the U.S. and Canada.
Two employees at Moodie, including Fulbright, already have been trained to service turbines, he said.
"It's another tool to help farmers offset costs," Fulbright said of adding turbines to Moodie's product line.
However, Moodie isn't targeting only the agricultural community in selling more than traditional harvesting equipment.
Cities, schools, hospitals, farms and even families could buy turbines from the John Deere dealer, Fulbright said. The dealership will sell 5-kilowatt and 50-kilowatt turbines.
Moodie Implement also is planning to sell turbines at its locations in Havre, Lewistown, Belgrade and Livingston, Fulbright said.
The turbine at the Moodie site will meet 80 to 90 percent of the facility's electricity needs, Harris said. The blades will spin at a maximum of 42 revolutions per minute no matter how strong the wind blows. A "net meter" also was installed, which will allow electricity to be returned to the grid if the turbine produces more electricity than Moodie needs.
"We'll need a trained work force to work on wind turbines," Harris said.
That's why students in Jason Harding's sustainable energy technician program at Montana State University-Great Falls College of Technology were at Moodie's on Tuesday to watch workers assemble the turbine with the help of two cranes, including one capable of lifting 140 tons. The lattice tower was put up Monday.
Workers using huge wrenches almost as long as canes affixed the 950-pound blades to the 10,000-pound generator, which looked like a big blue engine encased in a white shell.
"This is the first class that's ever gone through the program," said Harding, director of the MSU-Great Falls program.
College instructors view the turbines as real-world opportunities for students to study wind technology — and as potential sources of employment for future wind turbine maintenance technicians.
Moodie was awarded the college's five-year maintenance contract on the MSU-Great Falls wind turbine that was put up last year. Think One installed that turbine.
Turbines that produce 50 kilowatts of electricity are smaller than towers at big wind farms, but larger than residential turbines. Only a handful of them are up and running in Montana — and three of those are in Great Falls, Harris said.
"This is more sized for a large industrial-sized customer or community wind (project)," he said of the Moodie turbine.
Reach Tribune Staff Writer Karl Puckett at 406-791-1471, 800-438-6600 or

City of Great Falls sues Southern Montana Electric over documents, other issues

Tribune Staff Writer

11:41 AM, Mar. 17, 2011|

City of Great Falls officials want their security deposit back from the Billings-based Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative.

The city sued Southern Montana Electric Wednesday in State District Court in Great Falls, asking for a return of a $792,411 deposit as well as a state district judge’s opinion on whether various contracts and obligations between the city and Southern Montana Electric could be voided.

Tension levels have increased in recent months as officials on both sides disagreed over the city’s access to financial records and whether the city can quit the electricity business. Southern’s attorney has threatened to sue the city if it tried to back out of its power contracts with the cooperative.

Members of the Southern Montana board met with city commissioners Tuesday in Great Falls to clarify how the city might be able to leave the electricity business. The city joined Southern Montana in 2003 and has been selling power mostly at a loss to other government agencies, businesses and nonprofit groups since 2004. The city’s deficit in its power utility reached $4 million late last year and has been growing since then.

One Southern board member at Tuesday’s meeting urged the city and its wholesale electricity supplier to avoid court battles. Joe Dirkson, who is also a member of the Fergus Electric board, commented, “I’d say we should work together.” Dirkson added the only people to benefit from a lawsuit are the lawyers involved. Tim Gregori, Southern Montana’s general manager, did not return a telephone call Thursday seeking comment on the lawsuit.

Mayor Michael Winters said Thursday he thinks city officials have done “everything possible” to obtain more information from Southern to help set new power rates “so that we’re not losing all of this money.” He said he believes the lawsuit is necessary.

Southern officials have not denied outright the city’s access to the PPL documents, but put off showing the documents to city officials for several weeks late this winter and have refused to allow the city to copy the documents. Instead, Southern said Great Falls officials could travel to Billings to view them at some future date. At Tuesday’s meeting, Gregori brushed aside the city’s requests for more financial details.

“I do believe that you have had the information you need,” Gregori told city officials. Instead, he said Tuesday, “I think it’s been more of a lack of understanding” on the part of city officials of information the city al-ready has.

In the lawsuit, city officials asked District Judge Kenneth Neill whether:the city is a proper member of the co-op the city’s contracts and obligations with the co-op “are void or voidable based on a fundamental change in purpose and circumstances the city’s contracts and obligations with the co-op “are void or voidable” based upon the length of contract terms; one city power supply contract with Southern runs through 2048 the city’s contracts and obligations are void or voidable because they conflict with the city code the city’s contracts and obligations are void or voidable because they improperly delegate the city’s taxing powerthe city should have access to documents and other information that Southern refuses to disclose the city should have its security deposit of $792,411 returned.

In the lawsuit, the city noted Southern Montana Electric proposed to build a coal-fired power plant east of Great Falls but changed plans in midstream and is building a gas-fired power plant instead.

Here is the entire court filed complaint:
Complaint for Declatory Judgment

City to discuss exit strategy with electricity supplier SME

Written by
Tribune Staff Writer

10:00 PM, Mar. 13, 2011|

Tensions between the city of Great Falls and its wholesale electricity supplier will get a public airing Tuesday morning at the Civic Center.

A special meeting is set for 9 a.m. between city officials, who are hoping to get out of the power business, and representatives of the Billings-based Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative. A city announcement about the meeting said its purpose is for Southern Montana to "present its model on how the city can exit from Southern."

Great Falls City Attorney James Santoro wrote Southern Montana officials March 1 to say the city would like to withdraw as a member of the umbrella electric cooperative, effective March 18. That's the date of the cooperative's annual meeting in Billings.

An attorney for Southern Montana, Jon Doak of Billings, sent a strongly worded reply to Santoro March 4, contending the city "appears to have given notice it is repudiating its contracts with Southern."

Doak wrote that a contract between the city of Great Falls and Southern Montana requires the city to buy power from the cooperative through 2048.

Losing the city as a customer could cost the cooperative as much as $80 million, Tim Gregori, Southern Montana's general manager, said at a recent hearing before the Montana Legislature.

Doak wrote that the city's departure could mean "substantial and material peril to all of Southern's member systems and their more than 50,000 members." He added that Southern Montana "does not relish the idea of further protracted litigation, but must protect itself and its members."

Doak also asked the city to explain a legal or contractual basis for leaving the co-op and terminating its power contract.

"We are hopeful your letter does not represent the city's firm and final position," Doak added.

Santoro's letter stated that city officials were frustrated by Southern Montana's reluctance to provide the city with documents Santoro said it needs to set appropriate rates for the city's money-losing electric utility arm, Electric City Power.

Doak replied that Southern Montana's closed meetings and its handling of documents are "reasonable and necessary." He wrote that General Motors does not reveal its contracts to buy steel,
nor does Levi Strauss reveal contracts to buy cotton.

Both sides have accused each other of delaying meetings.

In a reply letter March 8, Santoro thanked Doak for his letter, then rejected much of what Doak had to say.

"This venture as originally promised by Southern is no longer a reality," Santoro wrote. "To threaten the city with a repudiation claim and a breach of contract claim may make you feel better, but does nothing to advance a remedy for this bad situation."

The final letter Tuesday's face-to-face meeting came from Doak, who accused Santoro of "material inaccuracies." Doak added the debate can be set aside "until it can be continued in the proper forum, if that becomes necessary."

The city of Great Falls joined Southern Montana about eight years ago, and invested more than $2 million in a coal-fired power plant proposed by the cooperative. The fuel source for the plant east of Great Falls later was switched to natural gas. Phase 1 of the facility is under construction, and the plant may go online later this year.

Electric City Power ran up a deficit of $4 million from 2004 to the end of 2010 by selling power at a loss.

Leaving Southern Montana has proved difficult for Yellowstone Valley Electric, the largest power user in the cooperative. Yellowstone Valley sued to leave the larger co-op in State District Court, so far without success. A trial may take place in Billings later this year if the lawsuit cannot be settled by then.

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Richard Ecke
at, or at
406-791-1467 or 800-438-6600.

City sends Southern Montana Co-op break-up request
Written by:
Tribune Staff Writer

Mar. 1, 2011

 The city of Great Falls on Tuesday moved to quit a Billings-based electric cooperative to which the city belongs.

Great Falls is one of six members of the Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative.

"The current relationship between Southern and the city and ECP (Electric City Power, the city's utility arm) is clearly not working for either party," City Attorney James Santoro said in a letter to Southern Montana attorney Jon E. Doak.

The letter, dated Tuesday and obtained by the Tribune, said city officials "formally request to be relieved of any and all obligations that exist with Southern."

"If Southern and ECP cannot arrive at a mutually agreeable resolution that enables ECP to withdraw from its membership in Southern by March 18, 2011, the city will have no choice but to proceed accordingly," the letter states.

Santoro said the city hopes to leave the group "without expensive and protracted litigation." The largest member of the co-op,Yellowstone Valley Electric, has sued to leave Southern Montana, but it remains a member pending an upcoming state District Court trial in Billings.

Closed portions of Southern Montana board meetings and a lack of access to documents have complicated attempts by Great Falls officials to bring the city's electric utility arm out of debt.

City officials have been asking Southern Montana officials for access to important documents for six months and still have not received access to them, Santoro wrote.

In one example, the city wants to examine a contract between Southern Montana and PPL Montana or a subsidiary to help figure
out appropriate rates for ECP. Southern Montana, which sells power wholesale to the city, wanted city officials to view various
documents in person in Billings, and not copy the information. Great Falls officials also were irritated when Southern Montana
declined on short notice to hold that document review session late last month, and reset the meeting for later this month.

Santoro wrote that the city has "no choice but to demand that Southern make the requested documents available without
restriction," adding he believes the request is not unreasonable.

An earlier letter from Doak said Southern Montana officials were not immediately available to meet with city officials. The letter also demanded to know the identity of a private consultant the city hired to help set new rates for Electric City Power.

The consultant, Jim Williams of Butte, gave a presentation to city officials Monday night in Great Falls without having seen the PPL
data. Doak could not be reached at his Billings law office Tuesday night.

Obama extols Montana's wind energy potential

Tribune Washington Bureau

Feb. 26, 2011

 WASHINGTON — It was gratifying to hear President Barack Obama plug the Treasure State's importance as a wind energy producer Friday, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said, but the real work of powering the country lies in the hands of his fellow governors, who are responsible for building a reliable transmission network.

In town for the National Governors Association annual conference, Schweitzer and about a dozen other Democratic state executives met with the president to talk chiefly about jobs and ways to get the country's economy moving faster. They also talked about transportation, health care and education. And, Schweitzer said, they discussed energy development in the context of the uncertainty taking place in the oil-rich Middle East.

"We talked about energy independence, and the president specifically said it's the wind power of Montana, if we have a transmission system, that will run the energy of the future in this country," Schweitzer told the Great Falls Tribune as he left the White House. "And he said it's not an either/or (issue) — and I agree with that. It's developing Montana's wind, our oil, our gas, and to have transmission lines and pipelines that deliver (power) to the markets. That's what breaks our addiction to foreign oil."

The transmission grid continues to be a challenge as America tries to boost its reliance on renewable fuels. States such as Montana, which has the nation's fifth-highest wind energy potential, can't deliver much of their wind-generated electricity to the rest of the country because the grid isn't capable of carrying it very far. Schweitzer said that, in part, is because states have put up regulatory roadblocks that make developing the power grid

"I said to the other governors, 'When it comes to transmission lines, we all need to look in the mirror because the slowdown in the regulatory environment or electricity transmission lines is at the state level,'" he said. "We can't build a transmission line and get it out of Montana without the cooperation of North Dakota or Idaho or Washington or Oregon. So we all collectively have to work on the grid and a regulatory system so we can build those transmission lines."

Schweitzer also met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan earlier Friday to talk about rural schools, and said he plans to meet with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today to discuss ways of managing Montana's gray wolf population. The wolves have been the subject of much conflict between wildlife supporters — who want to protect them — and ranchers whose livestock have been killed by the predatory animals.

The governor, who returns to Montana on Monday, said he was not particularly worried about a looming federal government shutdown, which could happen next week if Republicans and Democrats can't agree on a temporary measure to keep the government funded. Many of Montana's 10,402 federal workers (as of December 2010) would not be able to do their jobs if a shutdown occurs.

"We probably wouldn't miss 'em for a few days," Schweitzer joked.
NASA research center goes ultragreen
Feb 03 - USA TODAY

Ceiling panels that cool the air? Windows and shades that open automatically? A constant LCD display of energy use? These are some of the nifty features in NASA's new lunar-shaped office building that opens this spring in Moffett Field, Calif.

Dubbed NASA's "latest mission on Earth," the building showcases innovations engineered for space travel. It has, for example, a forward-osmosis system that treats greywater (from restroom sinks and showers) and reuses it to flush toilets and urinals.

"They installed that system on the space station," says Steve Zornetzer, associate center director of NASA Ames Research Center, where the building is located, just south of Palo Alto. So, he asked, "Why can't we use that on planet Earth?"

The NASA Sustainability Base, designed to produce more energy than it uses, will be one of the federal government's greenest buildings. It reflects the push by President Obama, who will have solar panels re-installed on the White House this spring, to make federal buildings more energy- and water-efficient.

"It makes sense for the bottom line," says Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Because the federal government is the country's single largest energy consumer, she says, lowering its utility bills will save taxpayer money and help the environment. She says Obama is expanding on the Bush administration's efforts to green the federal sector.

In October 2009, Obama signed an executive order requiring new buildings and major renovations be certified by the private U.S. Green Building Council's rating system, known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). In October, the General Services Administration upped the ante by requiring such projects meet LEED's second-highest, or gold, standard. Previously, it required a lower-level certification.

"They're really walking the talk with strict new standards," says Alex Wilson, executive editor of Environmental Building News. "We're seeing some amazing projects on the federal level."

Some of the best examples come in places people might not expect, says Michelle Moore, Obama's federal environmental executive. She cites the Department of Veterans Affairs' efforts to install solar panels at facilities nationwide, starting with ones in sunny areas that will produce up to 100% of their annual electricity.

Also, she cites the Army's plans to build and rehab 2,106 homes at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Va. The project has a mixed-use town center, solar panels and a salvaged playground.

NASA's new building wouldn't have been possible even five years ago, partly because the software used in its design wasn't as sophisticated then, says Jay Bhatt, senior vice president of Autodesk, which provided the software. He says its Revit system allows architects to model designs for maximum performance so they know the impact of every change, such as the amount of daylight available if they rotate the building 10 degrees.

Such modeling estimates that the $23 million, 50,000-square-foot NASA showpiece will use 75% less energy and 90% less potable water than regular code-built structures. And, once a solid oxide fuel cell is added to the solar panels and wind turbine, it's expected to produce an annual surplus of power. It's slated to earn the top LEED rating, platinum.

Zornetzer touts the building's geothermal system, composed of 100 wells, each 140 feet deep. "It's a very simple passive system," he says, noting how the wells connect to a pump that runs water through copper tubes in ceiling panels. The water stays at 58 degrees, so due to basic physics, the cool air falls from the panels to the workspace below.

He says computers will open the windows at night to let in a cross breeze and close them during the day. He says they'll open and close shades to regulate solar gain. Software will also monitor and adjust the building's temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide as well as light and noise levels.

Not all is high-tech. The building is oriented to maximize daylight, so artificial light will be needed only about 40 days each year. It's narrow, 54 feet, and has no interior columns, so people working in the middle will still benefit from daylight pouring in from floor-to-ceiling windows, and, on the second floor, the skylights.

"It has this incredible view," says the project's architect, Dave Johnson of William McDonough & Partners, noting the surrounding tall evergreens.

"It's like you're standing in a forest," Johnson says. "It's awesome. I'd like to work there."

Zornetzer says he'll be one of the lucky residents, and he won't hide in a corner office. To see how the building fosters collaboration, he says: "I'm going to take an open workspace."

(c) Copyright 2011 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

Great Falls Church to Begin First Phase of Solar Energy Conversion
Originally printed at
By Stephanie Tyrpak
February 7, 2011
From the sloped ceiling to the radiant floor, the First United Methodist building in Downtown Great Falls looks like it was designed for solar energy.
“When Paris Gibson laid out the city, he laid it out on a north-south- east- west grid system,” said Ken Thornton. “So it is really fortunate for solar heating, because it is likely that a building will have a south-facing roof.”
During an Earth Day presentation last year, Ken Thornton introduced the idea of "going green" to the church body. And with a $100 donation, fundraising efforts began on the first phase of harnessing the sunlight already pouring in through the building's stained glass windows.
“It's been one year, and we've raised around $40,000," said Thornton.
The first phase of the project will place 20 solar panels on an awning that will be added to the south side of the building. The panels will then heat the sanctuary, which will be the easiest portion of the church to convert.
“Gathering the energy from the solar panel is the easy part,” said Thornton. “The hard part is to store it, use it at night time, and on days when the sun doesn’t shine. It was like it was designed for it with that radiant floor. Not many building were built in 1955 with radiant floors.”
Construction on the first phase will begin as soon as the ground thaws, and is expected to take six months to complete. Other phases will be added as funding is collected.
And while other buildings belonging to the historic church bring their own challenges for solar heating, Thornton is looking into the latest technology to let the sunshine in.
“There’s another part of the church that is just as large as this without the radiant floor,” said Thornton. “And for that, there are a lot of other techniques that are being developed in places like Germany and Sweden, where they have really cold climates.”
The church has also discovered that the basement of the sanctuary has a radiant floor that was turned off years ago.
The "going green" project at First United Methodist extends beyond solar energy, and also includes recycling, plus other energy-efficient changes.
etIcon Great Falls Church to Begin First Phase of Solar Energy Conversion*
SME talks co-op with ECP board and customers
Posted: Jan 28, 2011 5:15 PM by Kay Rossi (Great Falls) Updated: Jan 28, 2011 6:53 PM

Southern Montana Electric continues its efforts to turn Electric City Power into a customer-owned cooperative.

Southern representatives met with customers Friday and told them they cannot form a co-op alone, the Electric City Power Board would need to initiate the transition.

Southern C.E.O. Tim Gregori says although E.C.P. will make the decision, discussions should be ongoing with both customers and the city.

E.C.P. Board Chair Bob Jones says previously the board has given Southern permission to talk solutions with customers but feels discussions should stay between the E.C.P and Southern from this point forward.

First, he says E.C.P. Board members will need to have their own discussion.

Jones said, "We have to keep in mind that all of our customer contracts come up in June of 2011 and we owe it to them to have some additional discussions as regards to where we're going."

Public Service Commissioner Travis Kavulla attended the meeting because although the P.S.C. doesn't oversee E.C.P., it will oversee customers that choose to reintegrate back into the public utility.

Kavulla was not permitted to share his opinions during the meeting but tells KRTV he sees major problems with the plan.

Kavulla said, "I'm positive that this business plan would only lead to higher rates, to more litigation and to a lot of risk to any business that was foolish enough to sign onto the plan."

As of June 30th, 2010 the E.C.P. deficit was over $3.6 million.

It's unclear what will happen to that debt if a co-op is formed.

Gregori says he feels a course of action should be determined before discussing financial details.

Click Here to Watch The Video Interview


Cold Fusion From Italy Updated
January 25, 2011 | 4 Comments
Prof. Giuseppe Levi and Dr. David Bianchini, of Bologna University have issued their preliminary reports about the Rossi/Focardi January 14th and 16th cold fusion experiment in a pdf running 12 pages. The report describes the heat production during the preliminary tests on the Rossi “Ni-H” reactor.
While ‘cold fusion’ works for a headline as an attention getter, or detriment or descriptor, the Rossi/Focardi device seems described better as a Low Energy Nuclear Reaction.  The principles prefer “energy catalyzer” for their discussion.  Whichever description works best, the Bologna pdf offers some interesting information.
To start with Bianchini’s radiation examination and report turned up, well.  Nothing of note.
Rossi Focardi Energy Catalyst Reactor. Click image for the largest view.
Levi’s heat production report offers a good photograph and block diagram of the device.  From the narrative and the block diagram one can discern what is happening.  It seems the reactor contains the specially prepared nickel and is flooded with hydrogen gas with some heat input delivered with electric resistance heating at about 1100 watts to start and reducing to about 400 watts when the reaction initiates.  A flow of water is introduced and rises in temperature to just over boiling producing a steam source.
Rossi Focardi Energy Catalyst Reactor Block Diagram Schematic. Click image for the largest view.
The discussion offers that Levi inspected the device looking for electrical, water and hydrogen connections.  He found a 220V 50Hz EU standard line feeding to the control box that connected with five wires to the reactor, a water inlet line and water / steam outlet line, and the hydrogen connection.  Levi even elevated the control box to examine its weightiness.
The measurements included watts at the 220V line, ambient air temperature, water temperature, and steam temperature.  The second test included a dry steam measure.  Values for the hydrogen rely on tank weights before and after.  Water flux was set and measured by collecting and then weighing an amount of water in a container in a given time.
A paraphrased edited quote from the University of Bologna scientist runs:
After approx 30 minutes a kink can be observed in the yellow line (A line recording the steam output temperature). Because input power (1120 W also checked via a clamp amperometer) was not modified (see fig. 5 later) this change of slope testifies that the reactor was ignited. After a startup period approx 20 minutes long a second kink appears where the reactor power was almost constant taking the water to ≈75°C.  A second kink is found when the reactor fully ignites raising the measured temperature to 101.6 +/-0.1°C and transforming the water into steam. At this point we can try a simple calculus in order to evaluate the power produced. In order to raise the temperature of 168 g of water by 1°C, ≈ 168*4.185 = 703 J are needed.  The water inlet temperature was 15°C so the ∆T was 85°C. We have 703*85=59755 J.  To this energy one must add the evaporation heat ≈2272 J/g * 168=381696 J. Total energy in 45 sec is 59755+381696=441451 J, and power is 441451/45=9810 W.
Rossi Focardi Energy Catalyst Reactor Temperatures. Click image for the largest view.
Prof. Levi concludes (edited):
The amount of power and energy produced during both tests is indeed impressive and, together with the self-sustaining state reached during [Test 1] could be an indication that the system is working as a new type of energy source.  The short duration of the tests suggests that it’s important to make more long and complete experiments. An appropriate scientific program will be drawn up.
Looks rather good, doesn’t it?  But its not hot steam at just over 100º C leading to some thought on how harvesting might be done.
Another resource is Jed Rothwell’s technical brief from last week that offers an easily understood English look at the demonstration.
Are there great gaping holes in the demo?  Just one – the potential for an energy source in the control box, suggesting now too late that the box construction might have been better done with transparent materials.  That would cancel the allegation that a battery or capacitor source was used to make up the needed power.
Without making a hard conclusion, the Rossi/Focardi appears to work.  There will be a need for more disclosure to enable repeatable study.  But, Rossi understands that the hard proof will be the sales or leasing of units in operation and has written in a forum saying, “Our judge is the market. In this field the phase of the competition in the field of theories, hypothesis, conjectures etc etc is over. The competition is in the market. If somebody has a valid technology, he has not to convince people by chattering, he has to make a reactor that work and go to sell it, as we are doing.”
If you need cheap heat, can stand the early commercial uncertainty and don’t really mind the explanation is scientifically and proprietarily incomplete, you might want to get an email off.  No law says you have to wait, at least not yet.
Rossi directed commercial inquiries to info(at)


Gaelectric hopes "Green Line" will help move energy

Posted: Dec 3, 2010 4:34 PM by Alex Grubb (Great Falls)

Developing wind energy around Montana continues to be a major focus for several companies, but there are still many challenges when it comes to distribution and transmission.
Gaelectic, an Irish wind energy company, says it's been difficult to be a player in the market due to limitations imposed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Part of the problem is that current transmission systems are older and can't support new high-voltage energy sources such as wind.
Gaelectric believes the Montana-Alberta Tie Line (MATL) line will provide some relief, but there is a transmission bottleneck south of Great Falls.
So the Irish company is presenting community leaders with the "Green Line" as an additional option.
Van Jamison, Gaelectric VP of Strategic Operations, noted, "The existing MATL line basically will move power into the end of a cul-de-sac effectively, and we need a way out. And that's why they're proposing the Green Line. So, the Green Line really breathes additional life into the MATL line."
The Green Line is under development by Tonbridge and will run from Great Falls to Garrison, which is north of Deer Lodge.
Along with the Green Line, Gaelectric says that it is investing money and resources into updating other transmission lines in Montana.

Electric City Power's fate still in the air

By RICHARD ECKE • Tribune Staff Writer•
November 9, 2010

Talks will continue between the city of Great Falls and NorthWestern Energy over the fate of the city's money-losing Electric City Power.

City Attorney James Santoro said Monday the city will not seek a secrecy agreement, called a non-disclosure pact, with NorthWestern, the state's dominant utility. "That just can't happen," Santoro said. "We need to have open government."

NorthWestern said it would be willing to sign such an agreement if the city wanted one. Santoro said at a meeting of the Electric City Power Board that the city won't ask for one.

City Manager Greg Doyon added some of the city's fewer than 20 electricity customers have been discussing the idea of forming an electric cooperative from which they could buy power. That concept was raised by Tim Gregori, general manager of the rural electric cooperative that sells wholesale power to the city.

City commissioners, who make up the power board, said they don't plan to be part of that discussion or advise the customers on what to do. "I don't think it's our position to do that," Mayor Michael Winters said.

"They've already brought it up themselves," Commissioner Bob Jones said.

Doyon also reported that the city lost $94,060 selling power in September, slightly less than a loss of more than $100,000 in August.

"Ouch," City Commissioner Fred Burow said.

Doyon said a letter last week from NorthWestern Energy indicated "there is some level of interest" on the part of the utility in acquiring the city's customers. "They're going to need additional information," he added.

NorthWestern Energy considers acquiring city's electric business

By RICHARD ECKE • Tribune Staff Writer• November 6, 2010

NorthWestern Energy late this week cautiously responded to overtures from the city of Great Falls over the city's struggling electric utility business.

City officials wrote NorthWestern a week ago to see if it would be interested in acquiring the city's fewer than 20 electricity customers.

A NorthWestern official replied to the city in a letter dated Thursday asking to see the city's electric utility books. The letter was released Friday morning. "In order to appropriately respond to your request, NorthWestern Energy needs to review the portfolio of Electric City Power Inc. to gain a better understanding of the obligations it potentially would assume," Northwestern Chief Supply Officer John D. Hines wrote. "Specifically, to facilitate our review, NorthWestern Energy would need to gain an understanding of the construct that ECPI is considering, as well as certain load data and existing contractual commitments." Hines said NorthWestern would be willing to enter into a nondisclosure agreement with the city if necessary.

Great Falls buys its electricity wholesale from the Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative, then sells it to other government agencies, nonprofit groups and area businesses. ECP, the city's electric utility arm, has lost money since it began selling electricity in 2004. Debts now exceed $5 million, according to officials.

Southern Montana General Manager Tim Gregori did not return a telephone call Friday requesting comment.

City Attorney James Santoro said he planned to get in touch with NorthWestern officials later Friday to discuss the issue of a nondisclosure agreement. He said such pacts are common when private parties are involved, but "we're open government here." He said he would want to know the wording of such an agreement, adding that city officials will need to take a closer look at it.

Santoro said he has had no communications with Southern Montana officials over the prospect of the city disposing of its utility customers. City staff members will update the Electric City Power Board on the status of the fledgling talks with NorthWestern at the board's 4 p.m. Monday meeting. The power board consists of City Commission members.

Electric City Power losses mount

By PETER JOHNSON • Tribune Staff Writer •
October 5, 2010

Electric City Power, the city's utility arm, lost another $105,000 in August selling low-priced power, its board members — also city commissioners — were told at a meeting Monday. ECP board members approved follow-up letters to customers warning that the city could be getting out of the business by next summer. And they heard a suggestion by Tim Gregori, general manager of Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative, of how the city could "stop the financial bleeding" and separate itself from the power business.

City Fiscal Services Director Coleen Balzarini projected an additional $1.3 million loss for ECP by next June, for a total of about $5.1 million since ECP's inception six years ago. (emphasis added)

ECP members renewed their desire to get the city out of the power business by June 2011, the date when both an ECP contract with 17 large institutional and commercial customers and a separate pilot contract with fewer than 20 residential and small commercial customers expire. In fact, ECP members approved a follow-up letter to the pilot program customers telling them their contracts would remain in place until June 2011 and asking them to accept voluntary rate increases of 15 percent to cover past and ongoing losses. Balzarini said the voluntary rate increase would amount to about $5 to $8 a month for the residential customers. If all participants in the pilot program paid more, it would amount to about $12,000 a year, their prorated share of the shortfall, she said.

ECP members also agreed to a draft letter written by City Manager Greg Doyon that will be sent to the larger institutional and commercial customers, such as the school district, Benefis Health System, Montana Refining and city itself. It tells them about recent changes and the city's plans to get out of the power business. Balzarini said she already has contacted several larger customers who have told her they'd heard of ECP's on-going losses, know something has to change, but hope they can continue to choose who to buy power from.

Doyon said he is not surprised if utility customers are reluctant to pay voluntary rate increases when they are uncertain about the city's direction with ECP and what might replace it. In a talk to the board, Gregori recalled that the city sought a partnership with SME to supply power after NorthWest Energy cancelled its contract in 2003 during an energy supply crisis. The coal-fired Highwood generating station proposed later east of Great Falls became controversial and has been replaced with a smaller, proposed natural gas plant, he said. Gregori said it's time to "tone down the rhetoric" and come up with a solution that can "stop the financial bleeding" for the city and get it out of the power business, while continuing a long-term commitment with SME to supply energy that provides local businesses with energy choices. He suggested a task force be formed with SME, ECP and ECP customers and come up with ideas within 60 days. Gregori said the city might be able to recoup part of its losses.

Both ECP Chairman Bob Jones and Doyon said they support finding a cooperative or other entity that could assume the city's role, but neither felt a separate task force is needed. Doyon said later that separate studies have been done and the current commission has chosen to take an active role itself in moving the city away from the power role. Some power plant critics, including Richard Liebert, said they applauded the City Commission's efforts.

Tide turns at Beartooth Electric

ROBERTS – As a wave of anti-incumbency sweeps the nation, so went elections for the Beartooth Electric Cooperative’s board.
During the cooperative’s annual meeting in Roberts on Saturday, two newcomers handily won seats on the cooperative board. Arleen Boyd of Fishtail was elected to represent District 5, which encompasses the area from Roscoe to Fishtail, Dean and north to Absarokee. Likewise, members voted in Roxie Melton of Boyd to represent District 2, which stretches from north of Roberts to Boyd, Joliet and northwest to Shane Ridge.
Boyd won over incumbent Mike Plymale, with 61 percent of the vote. Plymale, of the Absarokee area, had served for 18 years as a Beartooth trustee.
Melton was elected with 61 percent of the vote over another newcomer, Frankie Ropp. Ropp was nominated by incumbent Ronnie Wright Jr., who chose not to run.
The election results followed a lengthy meeting. While customers from Clark, Wyo., complained about numerous interruptions in service, a resident of the Stillwater River area commended Beartooth for its immediate response to power outages during the 2006 Derby fire.
The nomination process was also marked by differing opinions. One side charged that a vote for either of the two women was a “vote for special interests” while vocal supporters of Boyd and Melton occasionally countered with cheers and jeers.
Both Boyd and Melton have been outspoken critics of the Highwood Generation Station proposed for the Great Falls area. When asked how they will work within the seven-member co-op board, which has supported the Highwood project, Boyd said she will focus on the issues and the truth.
“You get the information and understand it and make a judgment,” she said. “There is no reason why it should be personal.”
Boyd said she has no agenda other than to do the best job she can as a board member. That includes making sure the numbers add up, she said, and making information easily accessible to customers.
Melton admitted that she will face a sharp learning curve but is committed to the task. She is an ardent supporter of the co-op principles of providing reliable, affordable power for its customers, she said.
“I hope my experience will complement the job we have ahead,” she said.
If 60 percent of the record crowd of 279 left the meeting pleased with the outcome, no doubt all co-op members were glad to hear that no rate hikes were proposed.
“Rates should be much more stable going forward,” said John Prinkki, president of Beartooth’s board.
Prinkki also noted that the bylaw committee, suspended last spring, would commence work again this fall. By next year’s annual meeting, he said, he hopes the issue of voting by mail on co-op topics will be clarified and presented to the co-op membership.
During his report, manager Ron Roodell explained why Beartooth’s rates are among the highest in the state. He said that, among several reasons, Beartooth has a much greater percentage of residential versus commercial customers than the average co-op of its size. And roughly one third of those residences are only seasonal. Both factors drive costs up for the limited customer base, he said.

Summit focuses on clean-energy technology

By ERIN MADISON Tribune Staff Writer • September 15, 2010

BUTTE — In the coming years, there will be a worldwide race to develop clean-energy technology, and being a leader in that race will benefit the national economy and Mon­tana’s economy, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said Tuesday.

Chu also gave participants at the Montana Economic Devel­opment Summit in Butte two predictions for the future. First, the price of oil will increase in coming decades and second, we will live in a carbon-con­strained world. That is the reason now is the time for society to move away from its dependence on carbon fuels, he said. “It’s going to take decades to transition away from oil. Let’s not kid ourselves,” Chu said. “But we better start now.”

The United States uses about 7 billion barrels of oil per year. It’s predicted that the yet-to-be­discovered oil reserves will be enough to last 14 years at that rate of consumption. “That’s it,” Chu said. He said he frequently hears arguments that the U.S. econo­my is too frail to try to move toward clean energy.

“There are way too many people out of work,” Chu said, adding that he sees clean ener­gy as an opportunity to create more jobs. “There is a race going on now to develop clean-energy tech­nology around the world,” Chu said. China leads that race, but the United States still has a chance to take that lead. “We can be the leader in this race, or we can import technol­ogy from abroad,” Chu said. “That’s our choice.”

The two-day Economic Development Summit wrapped up Tuesday in Butte. Hosted by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the summit attracted more than 2,000 attendees. The goal of the summit was to create more jobs in Montana.

Highwood power plant a go after special-use permit OKd

After bitter rhetoric and years of wrangling over the Highwood Generating Station, the proposed power plant cleared its last major hurdle on Friday.
Five members of the Cascade County Board of Adjustment voted 5-0 Friday afternoon in favor of a special-use permit for the project, clearing the way for construction of the natural gas-fired power plant to resume.
"Full steam ahead," said Olaf Simac Jr., president of the North Central Montana Building and Construction Trades Council, after the 4-hour, 15-minute meeting wrapped up. "We're looking forward to putting men to work."
Tim Gregori, general manager for Billings-based Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative, which is the plant's developer, said the longstanding effort to build the plant has been trying "both emotionally and financially."
"We think they reached a good conclusion," Gregori said of the board members. County commissioners are not required to affirm the board's decision.
Gregori said Southern Montana awaited the board's decision before awarding contracts to proceed with the $85 million Phase I of the plant, which calls for installing a 40-megawatt gas-burning turbine at the site, about seven miles east of Great Falls along Salem Road.
One longtime opponent of the plant, Mike Witsoe of Great Falls, expressed disappointment at the decision.
"I've been doing this for six years," said Witsoe, one of only six people to speak against the special-use permit.
Earlier public hearings on what was then a proposed coal-fired plant attracted dozens of project opponents.
This time, however, major critics of the project had already formally settled their objections, including area landowners east of Great Falls and the Helena-based Montana Environmental Information Center. Those two groups summer won a divided Montana Supreme Court decision this summer that ruled the county changing the site's zoning to heavy industrial constituted spot zoning amid farmland.
The recent settlement between the parties cleared the way for the developer to apply for a county special-use permit rather than seek rezoning.
Two Great Falls residents, Ron and Kathleen Gessaman, urged the Board of Adjustment to heed the Supreme Court decision and deny the permit. They said the plant should be placed in an industrial park instead of the Salem Road location.
Board member Greg Rider asked why the plant wasn't proposed for an industrial park.
"Staff would never tell an applicant, 'We don't like that location,'" County Public Works Director Brian Clifton said, adding the county acts upon requests based upon a site chosen by the applicant.
"That's a very good question," Gregori told Rider.
He said Montana Power Co. considered the site ideal for a power plant in 1989, in part because of its proximity to water and transmission lines. Southern Montana consultants also found the site well-suited for a power plant, he said.
In addition, Gregori said the developer already owns the property and has transmission rights for the current location.
"It isn't like picking up a tractor-trailer and moving it from one site to another," Gregori said. He said the idea of a new site was more "like saying let's move the city of Great Falls."
Board members Friday focused on a few points that they said bothered them regarding the power plant.
"I think there's a good argument that this should not be allowed," member Tim Wilkinson said. However, he then noted the settlement between previous opponents and Southern Montana, and said he felt comfortable voting for the special-use permit.
Twenty people in favor of the project spoke at the hearing, including officials of rural electric cooperatives that are members of the Southern Montana group.
"Fergus Electric is 100 percent behind the project," said Scott Sweeney, general manager of the Lewistown-based cooperative.
Union officials also expressed support, as did businesses doing work for Southern Montana, and former Electric City Power board member Bob Pancich. ECP, a member of Southern Montana, is the electric utility arm for the city of Great Falls.
"We're in a recession," Pancich said. "We need new taxpayers in this town."
"I think that we should move forward with this," said Don Ryan, a Democrat running for Public Service Commission against Republican Travis Kavulla.
Ronda Wiggers, who represents the area Chamber of Commerce, said the power plant will provide jobs and boost the tax base.
Great Falls native Richard Budde, who is now a Helena official for the Corval Group, said his company is building a similar gas-fired plant near Anaconda for NorthWestern Energy.
"I think it will be a great thing for Great Falls," Budde said. He urged Southern Montana to use local labor, saying that's what happened with construction of the 150-megawatt plant at Mill Creek.
Brett Doney, president of the Great Falls Development Authority, said he believes the recent settlement of the court case put the controversy over the power plant to rest.
Gregori added that much of the opposition to the plant initially came because it would have burned coal to generate electricity.
"The coal plant's dead," Gregori said. "The coal plant's done."
A series of consultants followed Gregori, describing a power plant they say would be relatively low-slung, as quiet as a wooded area, and would feature attractive landscaping, including native grasses.
Great Falls attorney Mary Jaraczeski, speaking for Southern Montana, urged the board to ignore suggestions that it wait a month to make a decision.
"Our project has been studied and restudied," she said. "We're finally on the 5-yard line and we need to get into the end zone."
Board of Adjustment member Leonard Lundby, a longtime volunteer fire agency official, grilled Kevin W. Cavanaugh, vice president of Stanley Consultants in Colorado, about fire protections plans for the project. Lundby recommended special fittings be installed on water tanks at the site so volunteer firefighters could more easily tap into the tanks. That language was written into one of the permit conditions.
Southern Montana has lined up the Sand Coulee and Black Eagle Volunteer fire departments to provide protection at the gas plant. Clifton read a letter from City Manager Greg Doyon that states the city does not have a permanent agreement with Southern Montana to provide fire protection at the site, although language in the permit said city fire protection might be arranged by the power plant in the future.
During Phase I of the project, wastewater probably will be trucked to the city of Great Falls for disposal, while in the long-term the plant's wastewater may be piped into the city's sewage treatment system, officials said.
Wells should provide sufficient water to the plant, consultants told the board.
Fewer than 100 people attended the hearing.

Settlement reached in Highwood power plant lawsuit

By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer •
August 19, 2010

The power struggle is over.

Two years and four months after 62 rural residents and agricultural producers joined the Montana Environmental Information Center in filing a lawsuit
to block construction of Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative's proposed Highwood Generating Station east of Great Falls, a breakthrough settlement was announced Wednesday.

The deal, inked by the plaintiffs and Southern Montana, will allow a smaller natural gas power plant to proceed unopposed by the plaintiffs on the condition that the developer limit the impact on neighboring property owners and pay their legal bills.

Southern Montana still needs a special-use permit from Cascade County to build the plant, but Wednesday's agreement removed a major obstacle from the path of the $125 million project. "It's kind of a relief to finally get a resolution to the thing," said Joe Kantola, a wheat farmer and one of the landowners who brought the lawsuit. Kantola, who lives a half mile from the proposed plant, said the settlement "was about as good as we could have got, I think, short of stopping the project all together."

As a result of the agreement, Southern Montana will continue the process of building a 120-megawatt natural-gas-fired power plant off Salem Road about
8 miles east of Great Falls, company General Manager Tim Gregori said. The developer plans to immediately apply for a special-use permit from Cascade County, which it needs to build the facility. "It's been a long, long, drawn-out ordeal, and we have finally reached a point where we both are
 willing to move forward, so that's great news to me," Gregori said. MEIC's program director, Anne Hedges, called the settlement "the end of a very emotionally and financially exhausting battle."

As part of a memorandum of understanding, Southern Montana agreed to pay $140,000 in legal fees accrued by the plaintiffs during the legal battle. Hedges said the settlement has about 14 provisions.

No. 1 on the list is that Southern Montana never build a coal-fired power plant on the property, Hedges said.

At the time the original lawsuit was filed in December 2006, Southern Montana planned to construct a 250-megawatt coal-fired facility on more than 600 acres. Even after Southern Montana switched to natural gas, neighbors continued to be concerned about a coal plant being constructed at some point in the future, Hedges said. "We feel great about preventing a coal-powered plant," Hedges said. "That was always our primary goal."

Southern Montana also agreed to undertake strict noise control efforts to limit the amount of sound from the natural gas turbines that will be heard
outside the facility. "I'm comfortable with the noise level they agreed to get it down to," Kantola said.

Other provisions state that a nationally recognized historic route used by explorers Lewis and Clark will remain in agriculture use and that Southern
Montana will reach voluntary agreements with landowners over utility lines that will be located on private land. Landowners had been worried about the use of eminent domain.

Southern Montana also committed to develop an energy efficiency program that will encourage cost-effective energy efficiency measures by its members.

Hedges said that as part of the agreement, MEIC and the landowners agreed not to fight Southern Montana's efforts to obtain a special-use permit from Cascade County. "The landowners out there are tired of the conflict and willing to live with a natural gas plant, provided there are conditions placed on it that make it a good neighbor," Hedges said.

Gregori said Southern Montana hopes to have the facility operating by June 2011.

The first phase calls for building 45 megawatts at a cost of $85 million. A planned second phase will bring the total size of the project to 120 megawatts.
The plant will provide power to about 65,000 rural customers, who make up five rural electric cooperatives in central and southeastern Montana, in addition to commercial and government customers in Great Falls. The city of Great Falls, which is the sixth member of the cooperative, has invested about $1.1 million in the power plant project. Gregori said the facility will boost Cascade County's tax revenues by almost $4 million annually, and provide numerous jobs. "I think it's a good project for Great Falls and the community, and it's power that will be used by Montanans, starting at about Geyser and headed east," said Gary Zadick, an attorney for Southern Montana.

Zadick was among about 20 people from both sides who met in a 10-hour mediation session Monday in Kalispell in attempt to settle the dispute. Former Montana Supreme Court Justice Jim Regnier served as the settlement master.

On Wednesday, the plaintiffs got together in Great Falls to look over the settlement and signed off on it, Hedges said. The agreement is on the agenda of
Southern Montana's board of trustees, which meets Friday in Billings. Wednesday's settlement had the former foes, who spared no punches in court, handing out compliments over the cooperation shown in reaching the compromise. Hedges called the agreement a "win-win" because the property rights and values of the landowners will be protected, while Southern Montana can end its fight with neighbors. Gregori thanked Hedges, the MEIC and landowners for their dedication to a resolution. "We have listened to the concerns voiced by neighboring landowners and have agreed to take noise abatement measures to make this a very quiet and neighbor-friendly facility," Gregori said. The total site of the project is 197 acres, but the footprint of the natural gas plant will be fewer than 20 acres, Gregori said.

The lawsuit was filed in Cascade County District Court after the county rezoned farmland to heavy industrial to make way for the project. MEIC and landowners argued the change was illegal spot zoning. Southern Montana joined the case on the county's side. A District Court judge ruled in the county's favor, but the case was appealed to the Montana Supreme Court. Last month, the high court overturned the
District Court ruling and the industrial rezoning, which left the plant's fate in limbo.

Southern Montana filed a request with the Supreme Court asking that it reconsider the case. Hedges said that request is being withdrawn as part of the
settlement. Even with the agreement, construction of the plant still must be approved by Cascade County. "But the landowners will not be there opposing it," Hedges said. The land has reverted to agricultural as a result of the court ruling, which is why SME plans to ask for a special-use permit.

Brian Hopkins, a civil attorney with the county, said an electrical generation facility can be constructed in an agricultural zone if the county approves the permit. Brian Clifton, the county's public works director, said the Zoning Board of Adjustment reviews applications for special-use permits. If Southern
Montana applies for a permit this week, the board would likely take up the issue around Sept. 10, he said. The board could approve, deny or table the
application, or approve it with conditions. The county typically approves about 10 special-use permits a year.

"This will be run just like any other special-use permit process," Clifton said.

Reach Tribune Staff Writer Karl Puckett at 791-
1471, 8700-438-6600 or

Click here for the Memorandum of Understanding


Group insists all work should come to a stop at Highwood power plant

By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer • July 21, 2010

Work at Highwood Generating Station, a proposed power plant amidst farmland, should immediately stop in the wake of a 4-3 Supreme Court ruling last week that the county illegally spot-zoned the site to heavy industrial, critics of the project said.

However, County Commission Chairman Joe Briggs said he was advised by the county's legal counsel that moving dirt around is OK. That's about all that's happening on the property right now.

"The county attorney's office is preparing a letter to SME (Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative) telling them what type of work that can be done with a permit and what kind of things that require a permit," Briggs said.

Richard Liebert, chairman of Citizens for Clean Energy, said that since SME officials have said they plan to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision no work should be allowed until that process plays out.

"They're not farming out there with backhoes," Liebert said of the plant site, which was zoned agricultural before the county changed it for the Highwood plant.

The high court ruled the rezoning to heavy industrial constituted special legislation, and the court reversed a District Court ruling in favor of the county and SME, which intervened in the case on the county's side.

"We won," said Daryl Lassila, one of about plaintiffs. "The majority of Montana Supreme Court judges ruled on our side. They agreed this should be an agricultural zoned area."

When the lawsuit was filed, SME was planning a 250-megawatt coal-fired power plant. Now a 120-megawatt combined-cycle natural gas plant is on the drawing boards.

Lassila, a grain grower who owns property across Salem Road from the Highwood plant site, doesn't support the gas-fired facility either. Its two jet-engine-type turbine generators will be noisy, he said.

"We're out here in the quiet country and they're bringing the noise to us," he said.

Gravel is being hauled to the site, which is located about 8 miles east of Great Falls, Lassila said.

SME still hopes to build the plant at the Salem Road site.

SME General Manager Tim Gregori said SME is proceeding with plans to petition the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision.

SME contends there was a "material deficiency" in the facts the justices relied on to evaluate the case, which is why it is asking the court to reconsider, he said.

Briggs said the county has no plans to appeal the high court's ruling.

"Preconstruction" activities are occurring at the 668-acre site, which is being prepared to receive prefabricated components of equipment in the near future, Gregori said.

Additionally, Energy West is making good process on construction of a natural gas pipeline to the site, Gregori said.

For SME to begin construction, the Supreme Court would either have to reconsider its decision or SME would need to get a special-use permit, Briggs said.

In the meantime, SME can do "dirt work" because no permit is required for that kind of activity on agricultural land, which the property now is, Briggs said.

County officials are in agreement that the Supreme Court ruling made SME's location conformance permit no longer valid, Briggs said.

The permit, which is needed to build the facility, was valid only in an industrial zone.

Tax hike, urban art topics of city hearing

By RICHARD ECKE • Tribune Staff Writer • July 21, 2010

Residents and city commissioners debated issues great and small at a Tuesday night hearing on the city of Great Falls' budget.

In the small category, Great Falls-area artists and art buffs urged the Great Falls City Commission to reinstate a $1,000 budget item to support a downtown urban art project. The money supports art displays in a 1st Avenue South parking garage downtown. "Art enriches us," said Julia Becker, University of Great Falls art professor.

Meanwhile, city commissioners Tuesday night voted 3-1, with Mayor Michael Winters dissenting, to approve a property tax hike of 2.2 percent to cover inflationary increases and pay rising costs of health insurance. The owner of a house valued at $100,000 for tax purposes will pay an extra $9.58 per year for the 2010 tax year.

Commissioners also voted to take a final budget vote at 7 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Civic Center so Commissioner Fred Burow could attend. City
revenues would be set at $96.8 million under the current proposed budget.

On the art issue, Great Falls tea party leader Cyndi Baker opposed the allocation. "Please do not spend $1,000 on this project," she
said. "We have hungry people in this city." The money for the art project would come from the city's parking fund. City Fiscal Services Director Coleen Balzarini said $1,000 is a very small slice of the budget, and could be authorized by commissioners, if they favored that.

"That's real money," Baker said later. "That's our money."

Larger dollar amounts were the subject of a sometimes bitter discussion of the city's electric utility arm's mounting losses. Larry Rezentes of Great Falls renewed his call for the city to dismantle Electric City Power, citing nearly $2.2 million in operating losses, plus a $1,144,504
write-off of the city's investment in the proposed Highwood Generating Station. Rezentes also termed the city's proposed Electric City Power budget "an absolute figment, completely unrealistic."

Balzarini said the city hopes to turn a profit of about $328,000 in the new budget year by asking its electric power customers to voluntarily agree to rate increases averaging 13.9 percent. That would mean a new power price for city customers of $68.71 per megawatt hour, compared with current rates ranging from $55 to $71 per mwh. She said the contracts with customers run through June 30, 2011, so a customer would need to voluntarily agree to open up the contract to accept a rate hike.

Travis Kavulla, a Republican candidate for Public Service Commission, questioned whether the city had any bargaining chips to persuade the customers to accept a hike. "This has been a difficult issue for this community," City Manager Greg Doyon said earlier. He said city staff and commissioners are working hard to resolve it. He said city staff members are working to try to move Electric City Power into the black while also examining the option of dismantling it.

In one bizarre moment, former mayoral candidate Ed McKnight suggested the city should ask its power wholesaler, the Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative, to pay the city for up to $600,000 worth of water credits.

Great Falls began selling power to various large customers in October 2004, but for several years sold it at a loss. The city issued water credits to Southern Montana, with the understanding they could be redeemed later by the Billings-based group for city raw water if Southern Montana built a power plant east of Great Falls.

Balzarini told McKnight that the water credits mean the city owes Southern Montana future raw water. "We were just given a false answer," McKnight said. "The water credit is something that's on the books as what we owe," Commissioner Bob Jones said.

McKnight, who spoke for more than 20 minutes, offered no proof of his contention that Southern Montana owed the city money because of the water credits.

July 17, 2010

High court says rezoning for Great Falls power plant was illegal By KARL PUCKETT Tribune Staff Writer
A closely divided Montana Supreme Court on Friday ruled that Cascade County in 2008 illegally rezoned 668 acres of land where Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission recently began construction of a natural-gas-fired power plant, calling the move special legislation and spot-zoning.
"The requested heavy industrial use differs significantly from the current agricultural uses that dominate the surrounding area," Justice Brian Morris wrote for the majority.
The high court reversed a district judge's ruling that denied the spot-zoning complaint and ruled in favor of Cascade County and SME.
The Supreme Court's ruling casts uncertainty on the future of the $210 million natural-gas-fired Highwood Generating Station, which is planned eight miles east of Great Falls, attorneys for Cascade County said.
Cascade County rezoned the farmland to heavy industrial use at the request of SME specifically for the power plant.
"SME is probably put in the position where it has to start from scratch, but I'll have to read the decision in full before I can figure that out," said Alan McCormick, the Missoula attorney and land-use law expert who represented Cascade County in the case.
His initial reaction after skimming the 54-page ruling handed down late Friday afternoon was the land will now revert to agricultural use.
Brian Hopkins, a civil attorney for the county, said the ruling calls into question the validity of SME's location conformance permit. The permit is the necessary permission needed to construct the facility. It is predicated on heavy industrial zoning, Hopkins said.
"To me, it just undoes the rezoning," he said of the ruling.
SME could decide to seek a special-use permit in order to construct the plant, Hopkins said. SME originally sought the rezoning to heavy industrial to obtain tax-increment financing benefits, which the zoning could bring, he said.
As it stands, Hopkins said construction at the site probably needs to stop, but he had yet to consult with SME officials to hear their views.
"If they wanted to continue construction, they are going to have to present a case to the county on why they should be able to," Hopkins said.
SME General Manager Tim Gregori said SME will petition the court for reconsideration of its decision.
Construction of the natural-gas-fired plant will continue while SME seeks reconsideration, Gregori said.
SME recently notified the state Department of Environmental Quality that construction was beginning, he said. Energy West has begun constructing a natural gas pipeline to the area.
"Supreme courts do make mistakes, and they will reconsider from time to time," Gregori said.
He said the justices relied on several errors of fact and "faulty premises" in reaching the decision. Examples he gave were references in the ruling to SME using condemnation for a railroad and not having a permit to build a gas plant. Both of those facts are untrue, Gregori said.
The 4-3 opinion contained a strongly worded dissent by Justice Jim Rice.
He concluded that the case was moot because the plaintiffs failed to file an injunction to stop the project and didn't challenge new zoning regulations that the county approved in 2009.
"We believe the minority opinion is more accurate in the assessment of this issue than what we saw in the majority opinion," Gregori said.
It's not very common for the Supreme Court to change a decision on reconsideration, Hopkins said.
In November 2008, District Judge Wayne Phillips ruled that the county rezoning the property to heavy industrial did not constitute spot-zoning as several landowners in the area and the Montana Environmental Information Center had charged in a lawsuit.
The lawsuit was brought when SME still was considering a coal-fired power plant, which at the time was very controversial. The county received about 1,400 comments on the project.
SME later decided to build a natural-gas-fired plant at the same location.
In the 4-3 vote, the high court reversed Phillips' decision, ruling in favor of residents with property in the vicinity of the proposed plant.
"The area to be rezoned is relatively small — both in absolute size and in terms of landowners affected," the majority wrote. "The proposed rezone smells of 'special legislation' in that the benefits would accrue to a single landowner to the detriment of the surrounding farmers and ranchers."
"We've said it's spot-zoning all along," said landowner Jaybe Floyd, one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit. He said the decision was "great news."
Richard Liebert, chairman of Great Falls-based Citizens for Clean Energy, said "wow" when told of the decision.
"Well, justice prevails," Liebert said. "I think they should have gone into the industrial park (closer to Great Falls). To stick it eight, 10 miles out on the prairie doesn't make sense."
Joe Briggs, chairman of the Cascade County commission, said he was pleased that a decision finally was made, but he had hoped the Supreme Court would offer more guidance.
"I do wish there had been more clarity added to what is and what isn't spot-zoning," he said.
James Santoro, city attorney for Great Falls, said the Supreme Court "not only remanded the District Court's order," which can happen, but it also went on to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, rather than send the issue back to the District Court for further proceedings.
"That was a strong statement," Santoro said.
The utility arm of the city of Great Falls purchases electricity from SME and owns a $1.1 million interest in the gas-fired power plant.
"There are a lot of issues that affect the city with this Highwood (plant)," Santoro added.
He said the city will review the Supreme Court's decision carefully.

July 17, 2010

BNSF puts Montana biodiesel to the test

Tribune Staff Writer

Every day, trains packed with Montana grains chug past Earl Fisher Biofuels.

This morning, company officials will join BNSF representatives and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., at the Havre Depot to celebrate a decision that could allow the Chester-based company to someday provide at least some of the fuel for the engines pulling those trains.

Railway officials announced last month that over the next year, Montana State University-Northern's Bio-Energy Center will test biodiesel produced by Earl Fisher Biofuels in one of two BNSF Railway switch engines used at the Havre Depot.

For now, that is 24,000 gallons of fuel, but considering that between 30 million and 40 million gallons of fuel are pumped into trains at the Havre station annually, the potential is much higher.

"If Montana farmers can provide the fuel that's shipping their grain out to Portland, that would be a win-win-win," Earl Fisher Biofuels co-founder Brett Earl said. "(BNSF) uses a tremendous amount of fuel — more fuel than we even dream about making."

BNSF Havre Diesel Shop superintendent Beau Price said Havre offers a perfect opportunity to test biodiesel on trains under extreme cold and heat conditions.

"I can't say at this point that there's a plan to put (biodiesel) in our entire fleet," he said. "The real benefit will be in the long term. It's going to allow us to see what the impacts will be on the engine and that information will be useful to us and to the entire industry."

Price said the arrangement bloomed naturally.

Many of the diesel shop employees were once students at MSU-Northern. Greg Kegel, dean of MSU-Northern's College of Technical Sciences, pitched the idea that the college could test biodiesel train engines, and Price saw it as a way to help both the Bio-Energy Center and the Hi-Line work force.

The college wasn't capable of producing the quantity of fuel needed for the test, so it turned to nearby Earl Fisher Biofuels.

One switch train will continue to use diesel to act as a control and the other will run on a mix of 20 percent biodiesel, which BNSF requires be made with Montana-grown oil seeds.

Trains currently can use as much as 5 percent biodiesel mixed with regular diesel. But because biofuels are usually more expensive than diesel and haven't had extensive testing on train engines, railway companies often only mix it in when states require them to.

The Bio-Energy Center first will certify the Chester-made fuel to make sure it's up to standards. Every three months during the test, center staff will compare the fuel performance, consumption and emissions of both of Havre's switch engines to see how the biodiesel stacks up.

Kegel is confident the biodiesel will deliver.

"This will be an extensive study, and I have no doubt that biodiesel will stand up to it," Kegel said. "Right now, they are hauling in millions of gallons of diesel from across the globe. Why wouldn't they want to buy biodiesel made right down the road?"

BNSF figures that using the blend of biodiesel will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from the single locomotive engine by 1.4 million metric tons during the one-year test period.

MSU-Northern recently received a $2.25 million federal allocation to install new testing equipment to allow the scientists there to see if biofuels can be used in aircraft. The center also was able to add four employees, which combined with AmeriCorps workers will provide the manpower needed to test the train engine.

The Bio-Energy Center also is testing various additives that could make biodiesel less likely to gel in cold weather.

"The research and development they are doing with biofuels will be part of the next generation of transportation fuels and crops that farmers grow," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who will be at a Saturday open house to celebrate the BNSF decision. "I look forward to seeing this made-in-Montana idea put to work in a BNSF engine."

When Earl Fisher Biofuels first got started, the company didn't sell a drop of biodiesel during Montana's long winter.

Last year, the company added the Montana Department of Transportation and the Havre and Chester school districts to its list of winter clients. With BNSF now a steady client, it will have year-round demand for biodiesel and for the crops — such as camelina, canola and safflower seeds — that produce it.

The company doesn't need to expand to meet the railway's test fuel order. But if the arrangement becomes long term, it would look to add employees and equipment, according to company officials.

For now, a sign on the train will advertise that its running on Montana-made biodiesel, and the testing will help prove the fuel's year-round reliability.

"We've finally gotten to the point where we've figured out the fuel, and we're capturing the interest of the end users," Kegel said. "It's just baby steps, but each one of those steps is getting us closer to our goal of revitalizing rural Montana. This is exciting."


July 15, 2010

Turnbull Hydro Project breaks ground to generate power that can run irrigation

Tribune Staff Writer

About 100 people attended a groundbreaking Wednesday for an $11.5 million hydroelectric project that will be the first to use an irrigation canal in the Greenfields Irrigation District to produce electricity.

The Turnbull Hydro Project is located on an irrigation canal near Fairfield. The energy created by the two separate generating facilities that will make up the facility will be recognized by the state as "green." That means it can be applied to state renewable energy standards by utilities.

The project was praised by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who attended the event and spoke of it later in a telephone interview.

Schweitzer said that use of center-pivot irrigation sprinklers, as opposed to traditional flood irrigation, has increased in the area since the 1970s. However, the center pivot systems need electricity. He called the Turnbull project a perfect fit for the area.

"This is hand-and-glove," Schweitzer said.

For 40 years, as electricity consumption increased along with use of the center-pivot systems, potential energy in the canals has gone to waste, Schweitzer said. Now the same water that irrigates the fields will power the irrigation systems, he said.

"This is a great example of a community taking care of itself," Schweitzer said.

The project will run 4 to 4 1/2 months a year during the irrigation season.

In addition to Schweitzer, Teton County commissioners; representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the Greenfields system; officials with Selway Corp. in Stevensville, which is manufacturing the steel pipe for the project; and officials with First Interstate Bank in Great Falls, which is financing the project, attended the groundbreaking.

Wade Jacobsen, who ranches between Simms and Fairfield, is partnering on the project with Ted Sorenson and Nick Josten of Idaho Falls and Greenfields. Jacobsen said construction would begin immediately. The project is expected to be completed in six months.

"So we've got a lot of stuff to do in a short time," Jacobsen said.

The generators will be powered by drops in water flowing through irrigation canals within the Greenfield Irrigation District, which distributes water from Sun River to 83,000 acres of land. The federal irrigation project, constructed in the 1930s, is west of Great Falls.

NorthWestern Energy, the state's largest utility, has signed a contract with Turnbull Hydro for the 13 megawatts of electricity, with delivery to begin in spring 2011, NorthWestern spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch said.

NorthWestern Energy can use the canal power to meet the state's renewable energy requirements, she said. She said that by 2010, 10 percent of a utility's supply must come from renewable energy — and 15 percent must be green energy by 2015.

Electric City Power may increase rates as losses continue to mount By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer • June 15, 2010 Electric City Power Inc., the city's utility arm, lost $67,001 in April, bringing the cumulative loss for the year to $358,000, EPC board members were told at a meeting Monday. Financial returns in May or June aren't known yet because it takes eight weeks to get bills out and returned, ECP Executive Director Coleen Balzarini said. The fiscal year closes June 30. Rates need to be raised to mitigate the losses, she said. The city is in the process of speaking with its 38 customers about rate increases, she said. The city actually has made a $58,000 profit in selling electricity for the year. It collected $8,134,000 million in revenue and paid supplier Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperation $8,076,000. "Our problem is we have other expenses besides energy supply," she said. That includes debt service for the financing the city obtained for its contribution to Highwood Generating Station. Highwood is a power plant SME is planning to construct east of Great Falls. The city also has had legal fees associated with the power venture and provides accounting and billing costs, Balzarini said. Five or six residents who have followed the ECP's financial situation closely attended the meeting. About half criticized the financial losses. "I wonder if the ECP gusher is going to be capped before BP?" said Richard Liebert, comparing the city's financial losses to the British Petroleum's hemorrhaging oil well in the Gulf. Liebert is president of Citizens for Clean Energy, a group that formed to fight the coal-fired power plant that SME originally planned to construct east of town. Resident Lawrence Rezentes, a certified public accounted, said the board had "a duty" to shut Electric City Power down. City ordinance requires that ECP operate at a profit, he noted. Waiting will only cost the taxpayers more, he said. "You do not have the authority to violate the law to further delay; no matter how well intentioned you may be thinking it may best to do so," Rezentes said. "We'll deal with it — but we'll deal with it in time," ECP Board Chairman Bob Jones countered. The board is working with the city attorney in coming up with a plan of action that isn't "half-baked," he said. Rezentes linked the losses at ECP to the city's troubles funding more downtown cops and keeping recreational facilities open but Balzarini denied the charge, saying, "I know that's what Mr. Rezentes wants to believe." In other ECP-related news, Balzarini reported that NorthWestern Energy, the state's largest public utility, is refusing to release electricity meters to ECP. Last month, a district judge ruled that the city had the right to provide additional power to its existing customers.
In light of the ruling, the ECP sent a list of 21 meters to NorthWestern. The case stems from the Montana Legislature's 1997 deregulation of energy utilities and subsequent partial re-regulation in 2007. As part of the re-regulation, ECP's customer base was frozen in October 2007 but it added new meters for existing customers that needed more power. NorthWestern and the PSC said adding new meters was, in effect, adding new customers. The city sued and won.
In a telephone interview, NorthWestern Spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch said the PSC needs to issue an order to switch the meters but it voted last week to appeal the case to the Montana Supreme Court. NorthWestern won't turn over the meters until the case is resolved, she said. "We really feel we need to wait for that appeal process to work its way forward," Rapkoch said.

Breaking News!!!
ECP Executive Director Resigns
In a surprise announcement Monday night, Coleen Balzarini, the Executive Director of ECP said she was resigning so that she return back to her core duties as the city’s fiscal officer. The resignation of Balzarini, comes after she reported another month of continued losses for ECP.
Larry Rezentes, a local CPA says the the city is violating its own ordinance with the continued losses of taxpayer money and April's statements show a loss of $110,000. Rezentes told the city commission, "These are dollars out of the pockets of the city's taxpayers and losses that the city commission and mayor have no right to have countenanced and to have allowed to continue in violation of city Ordinance 2925."
Mayor Michael Winters says the commission is making progress and working on an exit strategy. Commissioner Bob Jones says the commission is trying to make sure citizens are not impacted anymore than they are already being impacted and an exit strategy is part of their plan, but it takes time. The commission will discuss how to fill Balzarini's position as Executive Director of ECP at their next meeting on August 2nd.
The city of Great Falls got into the power business back in 2005, but over the years the city realized the business was not supporting itself and taxpayer money was used to keep it running. A recent report found that in the past five years, ECP did not charge enough to cover its costs by about two million dollars.

Breaking News

Hybrid Turbines, Inc has introduced our SmartGen™ hybrid gas- wind turbine system. The patent pending design burns biogas or natural gas to spin wind turbine generators 24/7 if the wind isn’t blowing. Large wind turbines, even in good wind resource areas, typically generate rated power only 30% of the time because the wind blows intermittently or at a low wind velocity.

This SmartGen™ system which can be retrofitted to existing wind turbines enables them to generate power at their rated capacity 100% of the time. The system can also be incorporated into new wind turbine designs. The SmartGen™ design can scale up to very large 4 MW onshore and offshore wind turbines.

If biogas is used then the SmartGen™ system is 100% renewable energy based (wind and/or biogas). Even if natural gas is used the electricity produced by SmartGen™ is twice as environmentally clean as burning coal. This will be increasingly important as we move to electric vehicles with batteries charged from the smart grid.

Stacks Image 30

Cascade County teens prepare for national Envirothon competition

By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer • June 7, 2010

Five bright students from Montana have qualified to battle it out with the country's brightest kids for thousands of dollars in scholarship money in the 2010 national Envirothon in Fresno, Calif. — the nation's largest high school environmental education competition. The Montana students are focused on competing and winning — not just reveling in the moment, co-coach Margaret Eller said. She knows because she asked the question. "They said, 'No, no, we want to give it everything we've got,'" Eller said.

The Cascade County 4-H team is comprised of Eller's daughter, Katrina Eller of Sun River, Andrew and Brandon Gould of Ulm, and Briar Yoy and Katelyn Nelson of Great Falls. It's the first team from Cascade County to represent Montana at the Canon Envirothon competition, which is Aug. 1-6 this year. The highest finish for a Montana team was sixth place by a team from Big Sky High School in Missoula. "It is very tough," said Shonny Nordlund of Lewistown, the administrator at the Fergus County Conservation District. "Some of those schools back East study all year long for the Envirothon."

Nordlund coordinates the state competitions each year in Lewistown, and she is serving as this year's chairman for the national Canon Envirothon. The purpose of the competition is to educate students about environmental issues, beginning with intense natural resources education at the conservation district level. The program is sponsored by Canon U.S.A. Inc. and local conservation districts, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and National Association of Conservation Districts.

Each state and some Canadian provinces conduct local and provincial competitions to qualify teams for the national meet. A total of 55 teams from the United States and Canada qualified for nationals this year. "I think they could end up in the Top 10, if not better than that," Nordlund said of the Montana team.

In April, the Cascade County students earned their trip to California by winning the Montana Envirothon in Lewistown, in which 35 teams competed. Teams were given the following case study in the state competition: Why were polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and nitrates testing high in a river town's drinking-water reservoir? The students played the role of a college research team, presenting findings to the town council.

They explained that agricultural fields along the river were being over-irrigated, which caused the leaching of nitrates. The PCBs came from a fungicide being applied to the fields, the students said. "So our solutions were mainly farmland management," Eller said. The scenario wasn't far-fetched, and the students
knew it. In reality, the Big Spring Creek in Lewistown is contaminated by PCBs. The only difference is the source of the real-life contamination is paint chips
from an upstream fish hatchery rather than agricultural practices.

Aimee Hachigian-Gould is a full-time rancher near Ulm and a part-time orthopedic surgeon in Great Falls who also serves as co-coach of the squad. She said the sky is the limit in California for the students from Big Sky Country. "They have such a passion for it," she said. "I think that they want it." Her 17-year-oldsons, Andrew and Brandon, are members of the team. Both plan to attend Montana State University. Brandon hopes to become a wildlife biologist and Andrew is interested in range management.

The Envirothon competition has provided both teens with public-speaking opportunities, Hachigian-Gould said. Team building is another benefit, as is having the students tested in multiple disciplines. "It's not just what's in their backyard," Hachigian-Gould said. "When they go to California, they have to know what's going on in California." Protecting groundwater through urban and agricultural environmental planning is the theme of this year's national competition, with a focus on California issues. Teams also will take collaborative written tests in soil and land use, aquatic ecology, forestry and wildlife.

A 20-minute oral presentation, followed by 10 minutes of questions from a panel of judges, also is part of the competition. "They can't get on Google and come up with information," Margaret Eller said. Students will use notebooks, pencils, markers and poster board in their presentations. Local experts in natural resources, land management and public speaking are helping the students prepare for the national event.

Each member of teams finishing in the Top 10 will win scholarships, with members of the winning team each earning $5,000. Katrina Eller, 17, could use that money for tuition at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., where she plans to focus on creative writing and classical studies. Eller is interested in the environment, but it was the fun of competing — not a potential future career — that drew her to Envirothon over the past four years.

Each member of this year's team has close to a 4.0 grade point average and is a polished public speaker, which gives Eller confidence the team will perform well in Fresno. "I think we have it in us," she said. "But I think the competition will be very tough."

What's next

The Cascade County 4-H Team is seeking donations
to help with its trip to the Canon Envirothon
competition. Send checks to Cascade Conservation
District (which is sponsoring the team), care of Toni
Neslen, 12 3rd St. N.W., Great Falls, MT 59404.
The Next Step for ECP is Revealed

Written by Travis Kavulla on 20 May 2010

Well, I was the only member of the public — except for KRTV’s Kay Rossi — to show up at the special city commission work session for Electric City Power this morning.
Apparently, the City is planning to negotiate new contracts to supersede the fixed rates that expire in July 2011. The new contracts will be aimed, so we are told, at recovering the debt built up from the last round of contracts. The problem is that the contracts the City is now talking about negotiating are based on some rather optimistic projections about the cost of power from Southern.
This is pretty much the same problem as happened last time ’round. At that time, Southern gave a wildly optimistic expected price of electric power to the City. The City — treating that number as heaven-sent and unassailable — negotiated fixed-price rates with customers. “They were valid projections but they didn’t work,” as a certain city employee known for her zen-like tautologies explained today. Southern’s actual price was far higher than projected, but that was no loss to Southern. The result, as everyone knows, was a huge loss to Electric City Power, which could not charge higher rates because of fixed-rate contracts, and instead caused the City to dip into property tax dollars from the general fund to pay for the difference.
So what’s the new plan? Well, the city commissioners were asked today by Ms Balzarini to agree to language that would set an outside limit for the price of electricity charged to ECP customers. Well, I guess that’s better than just fixing a rate in stone, the markets be damned. But it’s still going to be exposing the City to a situation where the cost of power from Southern may be in excess of the revenues we’re able to get for it. Consider that NorthWestern Energy’s projections are now for ~$55 per MWh power. Southern’s price to the City, according to the handouts at the meeting today, are expected to be a full $10 per MWh higher. And that’s Southern’s estimate–which, based on experience, will end up being even higher.

Follow the
City of Great Falls
Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative, Inc. (SME)
Money Trail from 2003-10
Aart Dolman
Great Falls, MT


SME officials say meetings still private

By Tribune Staff • May 21, 2010

A Great Falls man who has promoted open public meetings and documents in the Electric City drove to Billings on Thursday to try to attend a monthly meeting of the Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative.

Aart Dolman said he was stopped by an off-duty Billings policeman in a parking lot outside where the meeting was held and was told the meeting was
private. "We couldn't even get through the door," Dolman said.

At past Southern Montana meetings, officials maintained the sessions were private. Complicating the issue is that the city of Great Falls, a public entity, is a member of the private, nonprofit cooperative. City officials have stopped attending co-op meetings until the issue is resolved. The city has invested about $1.1 million in the proposed natural-gas-fired Highwood Generating Station, which Southern Montana plans to begin building in August east of Great Falls.

Dolman carried with him an opinion by Great Falls City Attorney James Santoro that Southern's meetings should be open to the public. A Billings police
sergeant read the opinion in the parking lot but told Dolman he could not make a judgment on the situation.

Southern Montana General Manager Tim Gregori previously said the opinion was Santoro's individual view, adding Southern Montana's attorneys had a different perspective.

Dolman said five customers of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative also were turned away while he was there.

Electric co-op members shut out of meeting again
CLAIR JOHNSON Of The Gazette Staff | Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2010 11:55 am

Great Falls resident Aart Dolman rose at 4 a.m. Thursday to drive to Billings to attend the monthly board meeting of the Southern Montana Electric Cooperative. 
“I’m here. I’m on the agenda,’’ Dolman said in the parking lot at 3521 Gabel Road, where Southern’s office is located.  Board members were to be discussing a request he has made for documents about its policy on retaining and destroying records, he said.
Dolman also had an opinion from the Great Falls city attorney that Southern’s meetings must be open to the public with the exception of discussing trade secrets and other proprietary issues.
But Dolman and a few other co-op members were shut out of the 9 a.m. meeting — again.
As in March, when members tried to attend Southern’s annual board meeting, a Billings police officer told the small group they had not been invited to the meeting and that the property owner wanted them off the property.
Officer Garrett Peterson asked the group to move to the public sidewalk.
“This meeting is open,’’ said Arleen Boyd, a Fishtail resident and member of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative, a Southern member.
“I’m not here to argue,’’ Peterson replied. “It’s a closed meeting.’’
If they were not on the board and not invited, they could not attend the meeting, Peterson told the group.
After more back and forth, the group left, but not before videotaping and photographing the exchange.
The confrontation is part of a continuing dispute between co-op members and the Southern board.  Boyd and other Beartooth members, along with Dolman, have pressed for more information as electric rates have increased and Southern has invested millions of dollars in the Highwood Generation Station in Great Falls.
Southern is made of five member co-ops from south-central Montana, along with Electric City Power of Great Falls.
Tim Gregori, CEO of Southern, has said that most board members favor regional meetings as the best way to answer questions.
Dolman, a member of Citizens for Clean Energy, has been active in getting documents from Southern and is writing a history of Great Falls’ involvement in the Highwood plant.
Southern, a private, nonprofit corporation, contracts with Great Falls. In response to a request from the city manager, Great Falls City Attorney James Santoro issued an opinion in April about the public’s right to know and participate in Southern’s meetings.
Santoro said Southern’s  meetings must be open and that the public has a right to access “any and all documents given to the City of Great Falls from Southern,’’ unless Southern shows a property right protection.
Southern is “supported in whole or in part by public funds as well as expends public funds for its capital ventures,’’ Santoro said. “Further, Southern is organized to protect and provide energy to the citizens of the city of Great Falls and to other customers.’’ 
A draft copy of Southern’s agenda had as the last item of business: “Attendance at Southern Montana Board Meetings.’’

Story Published: May 16, 2010 at 5:35 PM MDT

It is no secret that the city of Great Falls will be tightening its budget for the upcoming year. Many departments will be facing cutbacks, including Park and Recreation, which could be forced to close down the Natatorium Pool. But how long has the city known about the pool's condition and what can be done to save it?

No decisions have been made at this point but residents are making sure their voices are heard before it is too late. Those who use the pool say closing it down would be a big mistake, ant they will do everything they can to make sure that does not happen.

Marty Basta, the Park and Rec Director for the city of Great Falls says he did not realize how bad it was until pool maintenance staff noticed the dire situation and sat down with him last November. The 42 year old facility costs thousands of dollars each year to maintain and needs almost a million dollars in repair work.

Basta says one of the biggest problems is the pool's boiler. It needs to be replaced and that will cost around $180,000. Park and Rec has been applying for grants but so far, they have been unsuccessful.

Basta has been the director of Park and Rec for the past two years but it looks like the pool's problems go back years beyond that. Basta says, "Back in 2003, the city had this very same discussion about either privatizing or closing the nat because of the high subsidy. Should the city put money aside for replacing boilers or things like that? Absolutely, but if the funding isn't there. It isn't there."
Mayor Michael Winters recently said the problem is we have become a nation of entitlement, where we think the government is going to do everything for us. But some residents want to know how the city has money to fund the electrical business and not the local pool. Kelly Parks, a local resident says "I don't think that we really wanted to get into the electric business and we're losing 3,000 a day or something, so how does that become entitlement, where we just want to save our pool? I'm sorry that's not entitlement."
Residents and the Park and Rec Department are now looking at every option available, including a reduction in hours and possible grants. Limiting the hours that the pool is open or closing it for a few months out of the year could cut down on costs. Another option is to look outside the box when it comes to grants since the pool is used for both educational and health purposes.

KFBB-TV Story Link

City attorney rules Southern Montana co-op's meeting must be open to public

By RICHARD ECKE • Tribune Staff Writer • April 19, 2010

Great Falls City Attorney James Santoro has ruled a private Billings-based cooperative must open its meetings to the public. Santoro's opinion, dated Friday, said the Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative's relationship with the city requires the private group's meetings to be open. But Santoro added the meetings could go into executive session to protect the group's trade secrets and confidential proprietary information.

It was not immediately apparent what effect the opinion would have. Southern Montana General Manager Tim Gregori said co-op attorneys were examining the opinion. "That's his view," Gregori commented. "There are a lot of issues at play here." He said the parties involved will need to sort through the issues and reach some type of agreement.

Santoro said in his opinion Southern Montana must open its meetings and its documents because the city is giving public funds to the co-op and has invested in Southern Montana's proposed natural gas-fired power plant. The city's investment in the plant exceeds $1 million. Critics of the city's participation in energy ventures hailed the opinion and said they hoped it will prompt Southern Montana to open its meetings. Richard Liebert, chairman of Citizens for Clean Energy, called the paper a "promising step." Travis Kavulla, candidate for state Public Service commissioner, said Santoro's opinion "makes sense."

Click here for the Santoro legal opinion

For Immediate Release:

Open Forum:  MSU - Great Falls Campus Wind Turbine

The public is invited to an informal presentation and question/answer session regarding the new 50kW wind turbine that was recently installed at the College.  The event is in response to the high level of community interest in the turbine and upcoming educational opportunities in sustainable energy to be offered through the Montana University System, including MSU-Great Falls. It will be held on Wednesday, April 21st at 3:00 pm in Room G45/6 at the MSU - Great Falls Campus, 2100 16th Avenue South.

The manufacturer of the turbine, Endurance Wind Power , will provide information about their company and specific information about this
turbine.  ThinkOne Construction Management will provide a brief presentation on construction and installation of the turbine and tower. MSU - Great Falls Dean Joe Schaffer and Wind Montana Project Manager, Mel Lehman, will give an overview of the project to this point and plans for the future.  Information about the Sustainable Energy Technician programs being proposed to the Montana Board of Regents at their May meeting will be shared with attendees. The event is free and open to the public."

Invenergy plans two additional central Montana wind farms, buys capacity on proposed transmission line

By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer • April 10, 2010

Chicago-based Invenergy Wind Development LLC, the owner of Montana's second-largest wind farm, is planning to construct two additional wind facilities in the Great Falls region and has agreed to co-develop and co-finance a new transmission line needed to ship the power to market. Invenergy's Mark Jacobson said the company has agreed to a "cooperation agreement" with Tonbridge Power Co. of Toronto, which is developing a transmission project called the Green Line between Great Falls and Townsend.

Under terms of the agreement, Invenergy will invest in the early development of the line and has agreed to become an "anchor shipper," paying Tonbridge to ship 350 megawatts of power. Jacobson declined to say how much Invenergy will contribute toward development, but Robert van Beers, Tonbridge's chief operating officer, called Invenergy's commitment a "tremendous boost" to the project. "It means we have financial partners so the development can proceed, and the development is supported by three parties," van Beers said. "Secondarily, it means the project has customers."

Invenergy is the second anchor shipper Tonbridge has lined up, behind Gaelectric of Ireland, which has an office in Great Falls. Invenergy and Gaelectric have reserved a combined
850 megawatts on the line, more than double the state's existing output from wind and the equivalent of about five wind farms. "This Green Line is going to unlock a tremendous amount of energy," van Beers said. The 350-megawatts Invenergy plans to ship on the line would be generated at wind farms the company has in the works near Belt and Cut Bank, Jacobson
said. Construction is expected to begin in two to five years.

Cascade County, which has courted wind farm developers since 2002, is backing the Invenergy plans for what will be called the Big Otter wind project near Belt. "We have a world-class wind resource and this is just another sign that we will have a mature wind industry, I think, in the near future," Beltrone said. New wind farms will generate additional economic
development and property taxes, she added. Gaelectric officials previously said the company's 500 megawatts worth of wind projects are planned east of Belt and in the Geyser area.

The 100-mile Green Line would connect Great Falls to a major east-west transmission line near Townsend that reaches out-of-state markets, where developers are eager to sell power tapped from Montana wind. "It's a way to be able to market our power to the Pacific Northwest," Jacobson said. The initial financial contributions from the wind farm developers will cover the bulk of the development of the project but not construction costs, van Beers said. Once the line is in service, the shippers will receive credits to repay their investment. In effect, the wind developers are advancing money to Tonbridge to develop the project, he said.

Tonbridge received a $161 million loan from the Western Area Power Administration to construct the Montana Alberta Tie Line, a transmission project that will connect the electrical grids of the United States and Canada at Great Falls and Lethbridge. Funding for that project was made available through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009. Tonbridge also plans to seek a loan from WAPA to construct the Green Line, van Beers said. The Green Line would be a southern extension of MATL, which is in the early stages of construction.

Invenergy decided to invest in the Green Line because it was encouraged by Tonbridge's success in developing and financing MATL, Jacobson said. "We've been evaluating a lot of different options, and this is the one we've decided to throw our hat in the ring on," he said. Invenergy owns the I35-megawatt Judith Gap wind farm in Wheatland County, where operations began in 2006. At the time, it was the state's largest facility, but it has since been surpassed by NaturEner's 210-megawatt Glacier Wind Farm, which is located on the border of Glacier and Toole counties.

Montana Supreme Court begins posting docket online
April 8, 2010

HELENA (AP) — The Montana Supreme Court this week has begun posting its docket online. Supreme Court Clerk Ed Smith says the project has been three years in making and should enhance public access to court records and promote open government.

A visitor to the state Judicial Branch’s Web site — — can now click on a tab labeled “Docket” and search for a case by entering the case number, party name or the name of an attorney associated with the case. The visitor can see the actions that have been taken in any case before the
court and see an image of the corresponding documents.

Smith says the online docket is updated every seven minutes.

Glacier National Park loses two glaciers

By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer • April
8, 2010

Two more glaciers in Glacier National Park are history, cut down by rising temperatures. Meanwhile, a new report warns that tourism also could disappear if climate change stays the course. "There's still ice there, but it really doesn't look like a glacier," Dan Fagre, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Service's Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in West Glacier, said of Shepard and Miche Wabun glaciers, the latest casualties. The USGS recently completed an update of the park's retreating glaciers and made the latest information public this week.

In 2005, Shepard and Miche Wabun were about 25 acres each. They both have shrunk since then, reduced to just ice and snow. "Generally, once a glacier is smaller than 25 acres, it's not much of one," Fagre said. "It's not moving." Glaciers are accumulations of ice, snow, water, rock and sediment. They begin moving when they get big enough, sliding on bottom layers of ice, according to the USGS. Although glaciers are just one of the features of the mountain ecosystem that are affected by climate change, impacts to them are easy to see, Fagre said. "They are basically symptomatic of what's happening to our whole ecosystem," he said.

Glacier National Park had about 150 glaciers in 1850. In 2010, 37 named glaciers survive, with 25 of those being larger than 25 acres. The USGS predicts all of the park's glaciers will vanish by 2030. USGS officials say the glaciers are melting as long-term mean temperatures increase. A glacier forms when winter snowfall exceeds summer melting and retreats when melting outpaces the accumulation of new snow. Without icy glacial melt water, summer stream, pond and lake temperatures will increase and cause local extinction of species, such as the bull trout, that have adapted to cold temperatures, Fagre said. Glaciers release water into streams at a critical time — late in summer after seasonal snow melt is gone, he added.

Also Wednesday, the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report concluding that climate change threatens not only the national park's glaciers, but also its wildlife and forests. In turn, Montana jobs and tourism dollars are at stake, the report states. The groups said the average temperature at the West Glacier weather station at park headquarters was 2 degrees hotter between 2000 and 2009 than it was from 1950 to 1979. "People in Montana, and people across the country, dearly love Glacier National Park and what our report documents is climate change is not just affecting polar ice caps," said Stephen Saunders, president of RMCO.

Saunders was the lead author of the report, called "Glacier National Park in Peril: The Threat of Climate Disruption." He's the former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior over the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The groups studied data provided by 33 government and 55 scientific sources. Saunders called the study the first comprehensive assessment of how Glacier National Park is affected by climate change, which he said is the greatest threat ever to national parks. The report states that climate change could result in "wholesale changes in species composition" and a loss of "snow-capped" mountains, both of which could reduce their appeal to visitors. The study states that peak snowpack levels in the park may be reached 41 days earlier than they were in the last century, and that snow could cover the ground for about 70 fewer days in the winter.

Rhonda Fitzgerald, an innkeeper at the Garden Wall Inn in Whitefish, said ensuring the pristine condition of the park is essential to maintaining the state's tourism industry. "All the available research tells us that visitors come to Montana primarily for its spectacular unspoiled natural beauty," she said. Glacier Park draws about 2 million visitors a year, making it the country's 11th most popular national park. Spending by visitors may approach $1 billion annually, and the tourism industry supports more than 4,000 jobs in and near the park, according to the report. "Why put at risk Glacier's spectacular resources, as important as they are to Montana's economy?" the report asks.

A reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted from industrial facilities and automobiles could head off the worst of the potential future impacts, Saunders said. "That's the real cry for action," he said.

Nuclear treaty would cut only long-range arms
By ROBERT BURNS, AP National Security Writer
WASHINGTON – The new nuclear arms treaty that the U.S. and Russia signed Thursday in Prague may mark a historic return to arms control efforts for the world's nuclear superpowers, but the pact is more a modest step than a major leap along the road to reductions in the world's deadliest weaponry.
Some questions and answers about the new treaty, a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and its place in the bigger picture of U.S. and international security:
Q. What's getting cut and how much?
A. The new START treaty applies to one category of nuclear weapons — those designed to strike from long distances. For the U.S., that means warheads fitted on intercontinental-range missiles aboard Trident submarines, those fitted on similar missiles stationed in underground launch silos in the Midwest and those carried by two types of bombers: the B-2 and the B-52. The Russian strategic force is weighted more toward land-based weapons than is the U.S. force.
The U.S. has 288 nuclear-armed missiles aboard subs and 450 in underground silos, plus 60 bombers assigned to nuclear strike missions, for a total of 798. The treaty limit is 700, but allows seven years to get there. The Russians won't have to lift a finger to comply, since they already are believed to have fewer than 600.
Q. What about nuclear warheads?
A. Those are counted differently. The agreed limit for both sides is 1,550. In the previous strategic arms agreement, known as the Moscow Treaty of 2002, the limit was set as a range of 1,700 to 2,200. Neither country has said how many it has left, but the U.S. is believed to have between 2,100 and 2,200, and the Russians are believed to have about 2,600. The way warheads are counted is different in the new treaty, however, so comparisons are imperfect. The U.S. previously counted an unspecified number of warheads — perhaps as many as 500 — designed to be carried by its bombers. The Russians, however, did not count any in that category because the Moscow Treaty did not require it.
The new treaty takes an entirely different tack. Each bomber aircraft counts as one warhead regardless of how many bombs it is capable of carrying. Thus, the 60 U.S. bombers count as 60 warheads toward the 1,550 limit, and the Russians' 75 bombers count as 75 warheads. The actual warheads the planes would carry are simply not counted.
Q. Is every other nuclear weapon counted?
A. Hardly. The U.S. has an estimated 6,700 nuclear warheads in reserve and awaiting eventual dismantlement — none of which count against the 1,550 total. The Russians have a similar number in that not-counted category.
Another category that is not covered is short-range nuclear weapons. The U.S. has an estimated 500, of which about 200 are based in Europe. The Russians have perhaps 2,000, all based on their own territory. The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it will push the Russians to negotiate limits for short-range as well as long-range weapons, once the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is signed and ratified by both countries.
Q. Is ratification a sure thing?
A. No, but prospects appear bright at this stage. The Obama administration needs 67 votes in the Senate. More than one committee may hold hearings on the treaty, but the panel that has sole jurisdiction to write a resolution of ratification is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, who strongly supports the treaty. The committee's ranking Republican, Richard Lugar of Indiana, also has indicated he will support it. The White House, however, is not expected to submit the actual treaty and its detailed annexes to the Senate for some weeks. The Russian parliament must also approve the treaty, but as long as the Kremlin supports the pact, legislative approval is expected to be a formality. Upon ratification, the treaty is to remain in force for 10 years.
Q. Why is the treaty important?
A. Not because it dramatically shrinks nuclear dangers. Linton Brooks, a lead U.S. negotiator on the 1991 strategic arms treaty, on Wednesday described the weapons reductions as "modest but not completely trivial." Perhaps more important is the fact that the U.S. and Russian governments have established a bridge to potentially more substantial arms reductions and have demonstrated to the rest of the world that they are capable of giving up at least some of the weaponry they want others, like Iran, to forgo.

Malmstrom supporters cautiously optimistic new strategy won't hurt base

By RICHARD ECKE • Tribune Staff Writer • April 7, 2010

Malmstrom Air Force Base's main mission may be safe for now under a Nuclear Posture Review released Tuesday by the Obama administration. The base, located just east of Great Falls, oversees 150 nuclear-tipped missiles in launch facilities scattered around central Montana. "Basically, it looks like we are secure at least through 2012," said Great Falls' David Weissman,
chairman of the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce's Central Montana Defense Alliance. Another 300 land-based missiles located at two bases in North Dakota and Wyoming also appear to be safe from cuts, he said. "We're glad that it's all 450 (missiles)," Weissman said. "We're feeling that we're pretty confident for the next couple of years."

President Barack Obama released the review Tuesday, and most of the media's attention focused on when the United States would consider using nuclear weapons against another country or a terrorist group. However, the report made no mention of reducing the number of land-based missiles in the U.S. arsenal, which officials from the states where the missiles were located took as good news. The office of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Tuesday suggested that Obama decided to keep all of the nation's 450 operationally deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles through at least 2012. "This is the right call for America and our national security," Tester said in a news release. "It's the right call for Montana and the strong relationship our communities have with the Air Force. And it's the right call for Malmstrom and the folks who serve our country there. "After years of pushing two administrations to keep our ICBM force at its current level, and after countless meetings and phone calls, this goes to show that working together, opening the lines of communication — and a lot of persistence — pays off," Tester added. "When it comes to our national security and Malmstrom Air Force Base, I wouldn't have it any other way."

Tester, a member of the Senate Appropriations and Homeland Security committees, and senior Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., met last month with Vice President Joe Biden to urge the administration not to make any cuts to the nation's ICBM force. The other two members of Montana's congressional delegation were more cautious about the Nuclear Posture Review's effects on Montana. "Malmstrom Air Force Base plays a vital role in our homeland security mission," said Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., adding that he hopes to discuss the proposal's impact on the country's national security, Malmstrom's mission and the Great Falls area. Rehberg added he is "greatly concerned" that Obama has told the world he would deploy nuclear weapons under fewer scenarios. "Now is not the time to be weakening the strongest deterrent that we have," Rehberg said. Baucus said he was pleased with Tuesday's report. "It affirmed the importance of our nation's 450 ICBMs," Baucus said in a statement released Tuesday. "I was also happy to hear that the Department of Defense plans to continue the Minuteman III Life Extension program, with the aim of keeping the fleet in service until 2030." Baucus did not state flat-out that he believes Malmstrom's 150 missiles are safe for the time being, but he expressed optimism about the base's mission. The other 300 missiles are overseen by Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyo. "I will continue to work hard to make sure all 450 ICBMs are maintained for Malmstrom, for Montana, for the entire region, and for the security of the United States," Baucus said.

Nuke deployments to be studied 'til 2012
Associated Press | Posted: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 4:45 pm
A new nuclear weapons strategy unveiled by the Obama administration includes two years of studies into how many intercontinental ballistic missiles should remain in silos scattered across Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota.
The United States has 450 land-based ICBMs maintained by Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont.; F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, released Tuesday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, says the agency will spend 2011 and 2012 studying potential alternatives to those missile deployments.
A proposed treaty between the U.S. and Russia would cut the number of nuclear warheads over the next seven years by 30 percent. The ICBM study could help determine where those cuts come from.
Nuclear heartland anxious about missile cuts

JUDITH GAP, Mont. — Here in America's nuclear heartland, where underground missile silos dot the landscape, a proposed U.S.-Russia treaty to reduce nuclear weapons is nothing short of alarming.
The military workers who maintain those missiles support cities as large as Great Falls, where 40 percent of the economy depends upon Malmstrom Air Force Base, and businesses as small as the Judith Gap Mercantile, where passing airmen buy milkshakes by the dozen. If they follow the missiles out of town, the economies here could be crippled.
The fate of the 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles around Malmstrom, F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne, Wyo., and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota is not yet clear, but politicians and community leaders are ready to fight to keep them. Even if it means not cutting nuclear weapons.
"I would keep Malmstrom at full strength, regardless," Great Falls Mayor Michael Winters said. "Each and every facet of our economy has something to do with Malmstrom."
Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming business leaders over the past year have lobbied their congressional delegations, all the while avoiding arguments about whose base is more important, said Dale Steenbergen, president and CEO of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce.
Instead, they are trying to persuade Congress to keep the ICBM silos at full strength, arguing that they are relatively cheap to maintain and are more secure compared to bombers and submarines that also carry nuclear weapons.
"You can sink a sub or shoot down a plane. That's very different from attacking American soil, and that's what you'd have to do (to get to the ICBM silos)," Steenbergen said.
The proposed treaty would require the U.S. and Russia to reduce their nuclear warheads over the next seven years by 30 percent, to 1,550 from a previous maximum of 2,200. But it doesn't say where those cuts would come.
That's expected to be detailed in the Defense Department's Nuclear Posture Review, a comprehensive strategic review of the U.S. nuclear force. The review could be released as early as next week, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bob Mehal said.
Officials at the Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the nation's nuclear equipped bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, declined to comment.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are expected to sign the treaty April 8 in Prague. It must then be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate, where opponents are directing their lobbying.
Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said he is inclined to support ratification and that the reduction of nuclear warheads is an admirable goal. ICBMs like those at Malmstrom are likely to be spared deep cuts because they are cost-effective and could eventually be converted to carry conventional warheads, he said.
"I see no change in American force structure in the foreseeable future," Baucus said.
Malmstrom's 341st Missile Wing employs about 4,000 military personnel and civilians to manage its 150 ICBMs. One maintenance duty is to extend the life of aging Minuteman III missiles — the last of which were produced in 1978 — and the Air Force has committed nearly $6.2 billion to such life-extension programs, according to Malmstrom's Web site.
Quantifying the economic contribution of the three bases on their surrounding communities is difficult, but their importance to those cities and towns is clear.
The bases employ thousands, provide contract work for local businesses and base personnel spend money and pay taxes to the towns. There also is the fierce pride of each community being at the center of the nation's defense.
Airmen who service and maintain the missiles pass daily through Judith Gap, a town of about 150 in the center of Montana. Residents are used to regular emergency drills that involve lines of Humvees, helicopters overhead and soldiers crouched on hillsides, rifles at the ready. Their advice to a visitor: Don't stop at the silos to test the security.
The Judith Gap Mercantile, which boasts that its milkshakes are famous worldwide, takes pride in serving the military men and women who make up an estimated 70 percent of its business. A shrine is dedicated to them. Models of missiles, plaques of appreciation and shoulder patches from various military units cover a wall.
"They like to play a little game with us," said Jancy Kowalski, who makes the milkshakes. "They'll come in and say, 'We need 15 milkshakes,' and we've got like 10 minutes to close. They love to do that to us."
Neither Kowalski nor the few customers in the store Tuesday ventured a guess what losing the military trade would do, but longtime resident Andrew Arneson said it would devastate a farming and ranching community already hurt by recession.
"You'll find more people going out of business, selling their farms. They can't take it. Everything's going downhill," he said.
One city that has suffered from nuclear arms reductions is Grand Forks, N.D., which lost its 150 ICBMs to Malmstrom in a 1995 Base Realignment and Closure round.
City Councilman Eliot Glassheim said the city hired lobbyists and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the closure, but to no avail. More than 2,000 people left in the years that followed, and the city fell from second to third in the state in population and economy, Glassheim said.
Grand Forks Air Force Base has a new mission supporting unmanned aerial vehicles, but the city has diversified its economy so that it's not as reliant upon the military.
Steenbergen said he believes the three states can maintain their nuclear manpower and number of operating silos — which can house more than one missile — but may see fewer missiles because of the cuts.
"I think anytime you're going through this process there's reason to be concerned, but we don't want to cry wolf," Steenbergen said. "I know some folks are getting nervous, but I think they're leaping to some conclusions."
Associated Press writer Matt Gouras in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.

Obama reducing 'the role of nuclear weapons' in national security strategy
Apr 06, 2010
In a statement on today's Nuclear Posture Review, President Obama said new restrictions on any American use of nuclear weapons are part of a long-term agenda to eventually eliminate all such weapons worldwide."We are taking specific and concrete steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while preserving our military superiority, deterring aggression and safeguarding the security of the American people," Obama said in a statement released by the White House.
Obama will take this agenda this week to Prague, where he signs a new arms reduction deal with Russia. Here is the statement in full:
One year ago yesterday in Prague, I outlined a comprehensive agenda to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to pursue the peace and security of a world without them. I look forward to advancing this agenda in Prague this week when I sign the new START Treaty with President Medvedev, committing the United States and Russia to substantial reductions in our nuclear arsenals.
Today, my Administration is taking a significant step forward by fulfilling another pledge that I made in Prague -- to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and focus on reducing the nuclear dangers of the 21st century, while sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent for the United States and our allies and partners as long as nuclear weapons exist.
The Nuclear Posture Review, led by the Department of Defense, recognizes that the greatest threat to U.S. and global security is no longer a nuclear exchange between nations, but nuclear terrorism by violent extremists and nuclear proliferation to an increasing number of states. Moreover, it recognizes that our national security and that of our allies and partners can be increasingly defended by America's unsurpassed conventional military capabilities and strong missile defenses.
As a result, we are taking specific and concrete steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while preserving our military superiority, deterring aggression and safeguarding the security of the American people.
First, and for the first time, preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is now at the top of America's nuclear agenda, which affirms the central importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. We have aligned our policies and proposed major funding increases for programs to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. Our nuclear security summit next week will be an opportunity for 47 nations to commit to specific steps to pursue the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years. And next month in New York, we will work with the wider world to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime to ensure that all nations uphold their responsibilities.
Second, we are further emphasizing the importance of nations meeting their NPT and nuclear non-proliferation obligations through our declaratory policy. The United States is declaring that we will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations. This enables us to sustain our nuclear deterrent for the narrower range of contingencies in which these weapons may still play a role, while providing an additional incentive for nations to meet their NPT obligations. Those nations that fail to meet their obligations will therefore find themselves more isolated, and will recognize that the pursuit of nuclear weapons will not make them more secure.
Finally, we are fulfilling our responsibilities as a nuclear power committed to the NPT. The United States will not conduct nuclear testing and will seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads or pursue new military missions or new capabilities for nuclear weapons.
As I stated last year in Prague, so long as nuclear weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal that guarantees the defense of the United States, reassures allies and partners, and deters potential adversaries. To that end, we are seeking substantial investments to improve infrastructure, strengthen science and technology, and retain the human capital we need to sustain our stockpile, while also strengthening the conventional capabilities that are an important part of our deterrent. The nuclear strategy we're announcing today therefore reaffirms America's unwavering commitment to the security of our allies and partners, and advances American national security.
To stop the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent nuclear terrorism, and pursue the day when these weapons do not exist, we will work aggressively to advance every element of our comprehensive agenda -- to reduce arsenals, to secure vulnerable nuclear materials, and to strengthen the NPT. These are the steps toward the more secure future that America seeks, and this is the work that we are advancing today.

PPL Montana: Rainbow Dam upgrade on schedule

By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer • April 3, 2010

PPL Montana's $230 million upgrade at Rainbow Dam near Great Falls is full steam ahead, with the work force expected to grow to 200 in a few weeks. "We said we were going to do it and we'll do it," PPL spokesman David Hoffman said at the construction site Friday. However, a Montana Supreme Court ruling handed down earlier this week could limit similar investment in the company's other hydroelectric facilities, including four additional dams on the Missouri River near Great Falls, Hoffman said. The court ruled that PPL owed the state $41 million in rent from 2000 to 2007 for use of the riverbeds where its hydroelectric dams sit, including Rainbow. The $41 million will be going to "bloat government coffers," Hoffman said, instead of to make improvements like those to Rainbow Dan, which create jobs. Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock earlier this week disagreed, hailing the ruling as a victory for a generation of Montanans.

Work began at Rainbow Dam last October, and Hoffman said it's on schedule. "It's putting a lot of people to work," he said of the project. About 60 employees, including electricians, heavy equipment operators, carpenters, general laborers, designers and managers are working at the construction site, said Steven Summy, PPL's construction manager. The work force is expected to increase to 200 people within eight to 12 weeks, he added. The dam's old brick powerhouse, which was completed in 1910, and its eight turbines are being mothballed. The powerhouse's 37 megawatts of electricity are being replaced by a new powerhouse with a single turbine capable of churning out 62 megawatts of electricity — enough for about 45,000 homes. "This, hopefully, will be operating 24 months from today," said Summy, pointing to the new powerhouse on a map in a construction trailer. The Missouri River construction site has the feel of a highway construction zone, only supersized. "It's a huge undertaking," Summy said.

On Friday morning, massive dump trucks loaded with excavated rocks rumbled along dusty roads. A total of 400,000 cubic yards of sandstone rock and earthen materials is being excavated to install huge hydroelectric equipment far below the surface — a surface made of rock. To get through that surface, drastic measures are required — a manual in one of the construction trailers was titled, "Basic Explosives and Rock Blasts." "It's very serious work," Summy said. Half sections of 45,000-pound, 25-foot diameter pipes manufactured in Stevensville sat on the ground Friday, waiting for installation later in the project. That work will take a crane with a capacity of 300 tons to set the 380 feet of pipe in place, as well as 50,000 man hours to weld them together. "It's a rather large crane," said Bob Flood, quality control manager for general contractor Walsh Construction Co.

Walsh hired 22 individuals to work as subcontractors on the site, including 17 from Montana, Summy said. The project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2012, is about 15 percent fished. "Now we're in the powerhouse," said Summy, standing 60 feet below the same surface where last fall dignitaries broke ground. The lowest point of the powerhouse will be 117 feet below that surface. Safety is a concern when crews are working so far below the surface amidst rock and large equipment.

On Friday, men drilled 30-foot-deep holes where "rock bolts" would be inserted above where Summy stood. Chain-link fence was being placed on the rock wall as well. Both are safety precautions meant to stabilize the geology and keep rocks from falling on workers below, such as those who poured concrete Friday. Eventually, the 300-ton crane will lower the 62-
megawatt turbine — in sections — into the hole. "We can't lift the whole thing," Summy said.

The powerhouse will surround the big turbine and a generator. A new "surge" pond also is being dug out of the rock. Water from the pond will flow through the 25-foot diameter pipe into the powerhouse and turn the turbine, which has fins. "That water hits these fins just like wind turns the blades on a windmill," Hoffman said. The water is then returned to the river using a
tailrace. "We're just borrowing it for a little bit," Summy said.

Hoffman said PPL attorneys still are trying to sort out the impact of the 107-page Supreme Court ruling on the rent. The state argued that PPL should have to pay full market value for the use of more than 5,000 acres of state trust lands. Bullock said the ruling confirmed that rivers belong to the people of Montana, "Not out-of-state corporations." The PPL Corporation is a global energy company based in Allentown, Pa., that generates electricity at coal-fired and hydroelectric power plants located across the state. Its Montana headquarters are in Billings.

The case originated in 2003 when Gallatin County residents, and later the state and Great Falls school district, sued, arguing that riverbeds are part of trust lands and utilities hadn't paid to use them. Hoffman said the ruling might have implications for other types of users, including ranchers, but Bullock disagreed, saying the court made it clear that farmers and ranchers are not under the same rental obligations as power companies. Hoffman said future rents for the company's dams will have to be negotiated between PPL and the state Land Board.
Today's Gold Rush: Solar
California hurries to get green-energy projects going before subsidies expire
By Julie Schmit

NextEra Energy Resources thought it had a golden project.

The company proposed a 2,000-acre solar farm, named Beacon, on fallow agricultural land on the edge of California's Mojave Desert. The site has the great desert sun but is on degraded land near a freeway, an auto test track and old buildings.

The site "is exactly where solar should be," says David Myers, head of conservation group Wildlands Conservancy.

But two years later, NextEra still awaits permission to begin construction from the California Energy Commission, which grants permits on such projects after environmental reviews. Time is running short, not only for NextEra but for several dozen green-energy projects in California. Ground must be broken on them before year's end to get federal stimulus funds worth 30% of the projects' cost.

The deadline — and the push for green energy by President Obama and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — has inspired unprecedented coordination among regulators and environmentalists who want green energy but not rampant destruction of wilderness. If they succeed in siting so many large solar projects quickly, California may set a precedent for how other states resolve concerns over land use vs. the benefits of green energy.

"It's a scene that's being played out all over the country," says Benjamin Kelahan, senior vice president for energy of the Saint Consulting Group. But California, he says, is "a hotbed of activity."

Yet the sheer number and size of the California projects, especially a dozen huge solar farms unlike anything regulators have reviewed in 20 years, is stressing agencies and stakeholders alike. No other state has so many huge solar projects in the pipeline. Billions of dollars in stimulus funds ride on whether the permitting process can be sped up without sacrificing California's stringent environmental standards.

No corners are being cut, regulators say. But some environmentalists fear that the tight deadlines will lead to projects that could've been better with more time. And companies say that some projects, like NextEra's, have suffered delays born of inefficient permitting.

"These are large projects at a scale we've never seen before on a time schedule that's never been done before," says Kimberley Delfino, California program director for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. "This is not going to be an easy thing to do."

If all are built, the 49 projects seeking stimulus funding would generate 11,000 megawatts of electricity a year. That's enough to supply 7 million California homes and give California utilities a big boost in meeting mandates to get 33% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The projects also would drive 10,000 construction jobs, 2,200 operational jobs and up to $30 billion in investment, including up to $10 billion in federal stimulus dollars, says Michael Picker, Schwarzenegger's renewable-energy adviser.

Twenty-two of the 49 projects account for 83% of the power. Some projects fall under the permitting process of counties. But the vast majority of the large solar projects fall under the review of the California Energy Commission and, if the projects are on federal land, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

California and federal regulators are working under conditions far from the norm.

Typically, the California Energy Commission rules on seven power plants a year, most often 20- to 40-acre natural-gas plants. This year, it has almost three dozen projects to review, including 11 large solar farms, several of which will each cover 10 square miles of land. Some projects that would normally take two years to review are seeking eight- to nine-month turnarounds, says Tom Pogacnik, a deputy state director for the Bureau of Land Management.

Never before have the bureau and the commission worked so closely to coordinate and expedite project reviews, says Terrence O'Brien, commission deputy director. He's dubbed a fourth-floor conference room a "war room," where staffers meet weekly to set priorities.

In November, commission staffer Christopher Meyer noted that the staff was already "sort of at a breaking point" with the workload, a transcript of a hearing on one of the solar farms says.

More people have since been hired. At the commission, 110 employees work on siting projects, up 25% since the fall. And while other state workers face furloughs on some Fridays, a consequence of California's budget woes, "We're working," O'Brien says.

The agencies are "tearing their hair out," says Peter Weiner, who, at law firm Paul Hastings, represents solar developers.

Whether the permitting process is fast or slow, complete or subpar depends on who's talking — and when.

In January, NextEra thought its chances were "grim" to get the $1 billion Beacon project through the process in time to qualify for $300 million in federal cash grants that are given instead of tax credits as part of the stimulus program, says Matthew Handel, NextEra vice president.

At a January hearing before the California Energy Commission, NextEra unfurled a string of complaints about the process. The Beacon site had to have a plan to relocate desert tortoises, although the site "has no desert tortoises," NextEra's Scott Busa said. The company had to redo a plan five times to monitor ravens that prey on baby tortoises, although the solar fields would draw fewer ravens than the sheep that currently graze and sometimes die on the land, providing a "raven buffet," Busa said.

He also said state regulators gave NextEra a 382-day plan to offset any effect on Native American cultural resources on the site, when the company didn't have 382 days before it had to break ground to get stimulus funding.

Given that the site was considered almost "perfect" for solar, Busa said, "I wonder why we're here two years later?"

After the hearing, the state reduced some demands. For instance, it cut the 382-day plan to 180 days by reducing how much land needed to be surveyed, Busa says. "They've recognized they're under time constraints," he says.

NextEra, a subsidiary of the Florida-based FPL Group energy company, is now optimistic the project will make the Dec. 31 deadline.

The commission's O'Brien says he also wishes that Beacon's review had gone faster. But he says part of the blame rests with NextEra, which at first proposed using fresh groundwater despite commission opposition. "It wasn't a perfect project, and it took time to resolve the issues," O'Brien says.

NextEra is proposing one of 11 large solar thermal farms. The farms concentrate the sun's power on mirrors to produce heat used to generate electricity. They'll cover thousands of acres, many of them largely untouched desert. The region has the most intense sun in North America, but it's also home to threatened species, such as the desert tortoise, and rare plants.

Environmentalists, who're largely supportive of solar, still worry that environmental reviews will be rushed.

"We need to proceed with caution, and what the stimulus deadline has done is remove our ability to do that," says Gloria Smith, an attorney for the Sierra Club in San Francisco.

Last week, the Sierra Club faced a two-day deadline to respond to information presented at an all-day hearing on one solar farm. After it complained, the response time was set at eight business days. Typically, it'd be weeks, Smith says.

Some agency reports also lack information they'd normally have, says Joshua Basofin, California representative for Defenders of Wildlife. This month, the commission and the Bureau of Land Management filed their joint environmental review on the 6,500-acre Blythe Solar Power Project. At the filing, numerous issues were unresolved, including relocating desert tortoises and offsetting damage to burrowing owl habitat and Native American cultural resources.

"We're very concerned that there hasn't been comprehensive environmental analysis for some of these projects," Basofin says.

The commission's O'Brien says environmental reviews will be complete. If first reports lack data, the agencies will file supplements, he says.

Several of the projects have changed to reduce their effects on the environment. The Ivanpah solar farm, at 3,500 acres, shrank 12% to lessen damage to desert tortoise and rare plant habitat. The Imperial Valley Solar farm, at 6,000-acres, is 16% smaller than originally proposed to avoid an area especially rich in Native American resources around land that was once an ancient lake.

Project developers are hopeful that the deadline for 30% cash grants will be extended, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has proposed in legislation. "But nobody wants to count on an extension," says Sean Gallagher, vice president of Tessera Solar, which has two projects. The stimulus funds "are a critical part of the financing," Gallagher adds.

The next few months are also critical. Companies need permits by fall to have time to finalize financing and transmission plans. Picker, of the governor's office, expects up to 75% of the larger projects will get permits in time.

While some environmentalists say those may not be as well-designed as they could be, leading groups also recognize that land conservation isn't the only factor to consider. Global warming will degrade even pristine land, says environmentalist Delfino. Greener energy is a way to fight back, leading her to conclude that some habitat destruction is worth a bigger "long-term" gain.

"But we cannot have the cure be worse than the disease," Delfino says.

Highwood plant may not use city water

By RICHARD ECKE • Tribune Staff Writer • April 1, 2010

Construction of a natural-gas-fired power plant east of Great Falls should begin in August, and the plant may begin operating commercially in May 2011, officials said at a Wednesday night forum at the La Quinta Inn in Great Falls. At the same time, city officials may face a new wrinkle — figuring out how to pay off a nearly$1.2 million debt if the power plant proceeds with plans to use well water, rather than raw water from the city, for the first phase of its plant. The city's electric utility arm sold power at a loss for several years, in part because it was insulated from those losses by extending water credits to the plant developer. That issue and more were addressed at the forum, which attracted nearly 60 people and contained a few testy moments, but featured less rancor than past sessions over the proposed Highwood Generating Station.

Tim Gregori, general manager of the plant developer, Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative, said officials underestimated the opposition that might surface to a coal-fired power plant east of the city. The proposed plant now is scheduled to instead burn natural gas, which generates only half the carbon emissions of a coal plant, he said. Gregori said he believes the first phase of the gas plant, which would generate up to 40 megawatts of electricity, will mean an additional $1.3 million in property taxes, a figure that would increase to $2.5 million if the project's next phases are built. Those phases would generate an extra 80 megawatts, for a total of 120 megawatts of electricity that could be generated by the power plant. The coal plant aimed to generate 250 megawatts of power. Early plans for the plant call for it to meet the peaking needs of the cooperative's members, including the city of Great Falls.

Gregori said that wind-power developers have discussed the possibility of using the gas-fired plant to supplement power created by wind turbines, but the Southern Montana board has not decided whether it will go in that direction. The co-op, which consists of five rural electric co-ops and the city of Great Falls, is looking at changing its tax status, which would allow the plant to supply more than 15 percent of its power to nonmembers, Gregori added. The plant initially would run about one-third of the time to produce peaking power primarily for its members, he said.

One revelation from this week's forums, held Monday in Billings, Tuesday in Lewistown and Wednesday in Great Falls, was that the first phase of the plant would rely on a well to supply water to the plant site eight miles east of Great Falls along Salem Road. That surprised some residents following the issue, since the city of Great Falls owes Southern Montana $1,186,062 in water credits that were expected to be redeemed through raw water supplied by the city to the coal-fired plant. A gas plant would use less water. Southern Montana may not redeem some of those  water credits during Phase I of the project, meaning the approximately $1.19 million debt remains. Gregori said Wednesday that the decision to not use water from the city that does not mean Southern Montana will go banging on the doors of the Civic Center, demanding $1 million in cash. Southern Montana will need fire services from the city and wastewater disposal, so the project may be able to take in-kind payments from the city in those areas.

"The city has to pay back the million dollars in one form or another," said Coleen Balzarini, city fiscal officer, before the forum. She noted that it is possible that a well could provide enough water for Phase I, but the plant might need the city's raw water in later phases. Gregori said it also is possible the developer would try to drill other wells closer to the river as the plant expands. The water well issue has yet to be discussed at City Commission or Electric City Power Board meetings.

On another subject, Great Falls' city commissioners decided not to put additional money into the plant development beyond the approximately $1 million it has been credited for its investment in the coal plant, Gregori said. That investment translates into a 4.33-percent ownership of the project, he said. Gregori said Wednesday that the power plant has prompted controversy in the Great Falls area. "We understand a lot of you have strong opinions about what we're doing," Gregori said.

Wednesday's meeting featured a mixture of plant opponents and supporters, as well as various officials. Southern Montana accepted the city of Great Falls as a member in 2003. "We thought we were helping them out because they'd been dumped by (NorthWestern Energy)," Gregori said. City and school board power contracts were unilaterally ended in 2003 by an arm of the state's dominant electric utility. Gregori noted that the power plant has gained $85 million in financing this year for its first phase, with all but $10 million coming through Prudential Financial. "Highwood Station is fully funded," Gregori said. The plant will be located a half-mile away from a Lewis and Clark National Historic Landmark and will be barely visible from the road after landscaping is installed, he said.

On the subject of the plant's fuel, Gregori said natural gas trades at very attractive prices, but can be subject to some volatility. He said the project will try to enter into fixed contracts to cut that risk, and have natural gas storage facilities as well. "We believe we can hedge those natural gas prices," he said, adding that selling the electricity at cost will help, too. "I appreciate the greener perspective," said Richard Liebert, chairman of Citizens for Clean Energy, which opposed the coal-fired plant. However, he also urged Southern Montana to operate more openly. Gregori said Southern Montana is looking at a lot of issues, but is happy to have obtained financing for the gas plant's first phase. "We're coming off a very long, difficult discussion on a coal plant," he said.

Gregori said the project also has options if it were to lose a Montana Supreme Court decision over the decision to zone the plant's location as industrial. One backup option if the developer loses that suit could involve the gas plant moving to a different site zoned for industry, he said.

Critics get some answers about power costs
JAN FALSTAD Of The Gazette Staff | Posted: Monday, March 29, 2010 11:36 pm
Despite some barbed questions, critics of a planned power plant by Great Falls and cooperative officials who support the project ended the first of four regional meetings in Billings with civility and even some laughter.
But relative civility doesn’t mean the two sides convinced each other.
About 40 people showed up for a Monday night meeting at the Wingate Inn. About half were supporters and consultants and half critics.
Three more regional meetings between Southern Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative and some of its critics are planned through April 5.
Tim Gregori, CEO of Southern, said borrowing $85 million to build a 40 megawatt natural-gas-fired plant called Highwood will keep power rates affordable for the long-term as cheap hydro power from the Pacific Northwest disappears because of increased demand on the West Coast and less supply.
“We believe we can generate the power cheaper than we can buy it,” Gregori said.
During highest demands, the five south-central electric co-ops that belong to Southern, plus the city of Great Falls, use 200 megawatts of power. The first phase of Highwood will produce 40 megawatts. If Southern’s board decides to build Phase 2 and 3, the plant could produce 120 megawatts.
Highwood power, blended with other contracts, can even out sharp price spikes, Gregori said.
Critics repeatedly questioned the assumptions and the numbers and wanted proof their electricity would cost less with Highwood than without.
After more than two hours, Deb Thomas of Clark, Wyo., a member of Beartooth Electric Cooperative wasn’t convinced.
“After we pay for this power plant, will our rates be cheaper than if we hadn’t built the plant?” she asked.
Southern’s other members are Fergus Electric of Lewistown, Mid-Yellowstone Electric of Hysham and Tongue River Electric Cooperative of Ashland and Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative of Huntley, the largest co-op.
Yellowstone joined Southern six years ago, but later sued to leave, complaining about the high costs of the plant and a lack of transparency in the decisions. Southern is negotiating with Yellowstone Valley in an attempt to avoid a court fight.
“We’re not participating in these public meetings because we’re not a responsible party to the loans that Southern Montana just secured,” said Yellowstone General Manager Terry Holzer.
After securing $85 million in loans on Feb. 26 at 8.6 percent in interest, construction will start in August, Gregori said.
He said this plant’s interest costs are higher up front, but will drop as equity or ownership increases. Customers should start seeing benefits in four to five years, he said.
“If we get cheaper gas or the price of electricity goes up, it will crossover sooner,” he said.
When asked why Southern couldn’t have gotten a lower interest rate or a better deal, Gregori said Southern did the best it could in this power environment, which is constantly changing.
A police officer prevented seven critics of the Highwood plant from attending Southern’s annual meeting on March 19. Like the U.S. Senate, Gregori said members can vote once a year to elect their individual co-op board members. And six of those, one from each co-op and one from Great Falls, make the decisions for the rest, he said.
The meeting lasted more than two hours, including one hour of Power Point presentations on the project before any questions were taken.
“I grant you we need to have more dialogue before the votes,” Gregori said.
Larry Luloff, a rancher and persistent critic from Boyd, agreed.
“I think it’s a real good start, an excellent start. We’ve had nothing before,” Luloff said.
Contact Jan Falstad at or 657-1306.

Officials: Loan seemed on track for plant in 2007

By RICHARD ECKE • Tribune Staff Writer • March 28, 2010

Officials in the midst of planning a coal-fired power plant in Great Falls three years ago maintain they were not trying to hide problems with federal financing from city commissioners or the public. City Fiscal Services Director Coleen Balzarini and former City Manager John Lawton disputed the notion that they knew financing for the power plant was falling apart in February 2007. "It was not up in the air," Balzarini said Wednesday. "There were delays, but there was no indication whatsoever that RUS (Rural Utilities Service) was not going to be the financier for the co-op members' portion of this project."

At a February 2007 meeting in Billings of the plant's developer, Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative, board members heard a Rural Utilities Service caution that there was no money in the federal 2008 budget for the project. However, officials recently said they did not take that news as startling or conclude that a federal loan would be impossible to obtain as a result of the warning.

Balzarini said that after reviewing information from that time, she does not believe she held back crucial information about power plant financing from city officials or the public. Over a period of months in 2007, officials began to conclude that the project might require a temporary private construction loan to begin work on the plant, she added. Balzarini said that even then officials still believed the federal agency would provide a permanent — or takeout — loan for the project. She said that when the federal agency announced in February 2008 that it would notprovide any money to the project it surprised project officials. "I think it was a big disappointment," Balzarini said.

A Tribune review of meeting minutes, Tribune stories and reporters' notes from February 2007 through June 2008 showed a mixture of disclosures, public relations and reticence on the part of officials in discussing financing for the project. Officials never obtained permanent financing for the coal-fired power plant, but they did recently secure financing for the Highwood Generating Station after deciding to burn natural gas to create electricity. "It's a very positive thing for the co-ops," John Prinkki said of the loan news. "This gives us a whole lot more options."

Prinkki, a Carbon County commissioner from Red Lodge who sits on the Southern Montana board, generally agreed Thursday with Balzarini and Lawton's recollections about federal financing issues in 2007. "We were pretty encouraged up until the fall of 2007," Prinkki said.

City's own loan

Balzarini said that in 2007, the city was pursuing separate financing for its share of the power-plant project since federal loans were intended for co-ops. Southern Montana consists of five rural electric co-ops and the city of Great Falls. Balzarini said she attended a Feb. 6, 2007, meeting in Washington, D.C., with three RUS officials, who inquired about the city's progress lining up a private loan. "We were told by RUS that it (the co-ops' loan) was in the 2007 budget," she said. Lawton agreed, saying this month that there was no feeling among officials in February 2007 that Southern Montana's attempts to gain a federal loan were failing. "The fact is that at the time we were led to believe — and did believe — that the RUS budget problem was a matter of timing, and that the funding would be put over into the next fiscal year," Lawton wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune. "SME continued the relationship with RUS for several months, including
regular conversations and meetings. We did not know at the time that the application would eventually be canceled."

Balzarini and Lawton attended another meeting in May 2007 in Washington, D.C., in which RUS officials asked how Great Falls was coming with its private loan. Balzarini recalled Lawton replying that the city was making about the same progress as RUS was on the co-op's loan. By fall 2007, Southern Montana officials were looking for private financing for a construction
loan, though Balzarini said officials continued to assume RUS would provide the permanent loan. That's what made the February 2008 RUS announcement that it would not finance the project sting. Federal financing for coal-fired plants was under fire from both political parties in Washington, D.C. at the time. Environmentalists were unhappy with federal loans to coal-fired plants — three groups sued RUS in July 2007 to halt a federal loan to the Montana project — and so were private lenders who preferred to make their own loans to power plants, Balzarini said. At about the same time, members of Congress began talking about trying to capture carbon emitted by coal-fired plants.

Prinkki called it a "kind of a perfect political storm." Amid various pressures, the Bush administration opted not to include power-plant loans in the 2008 federal RUS budget, and Congress went along with the proposal.

Replies to criticism

Southern Montana officials kept minutes of their board meetings confidential until those records, along with other company documents, were released by the city earlier this month, in accordance with a ruling by state District Judge E. Wayne Phillips of Lewistown. Early on, documents from February 2007 to February 2008 attracted the attention of those interested parties who pored over the newly released information.

Richard Liebert, chairman of Great Falls-based Citizens for Clean Energy, which opposed the coal-fired plant, said Friday that it was no mystery the federal budget could change during the year and affect projects seeking federal loans. He maintained that city staff and commissioners left the public too much in the dark on a number of power plant issues, including financing. "There should have been more transparency," he said. Liebert said he believes pro-power plant officials operated more on hope than on solid business practices. He added that losing federal loans prompted "a serious change in risk" for co-op members.

City Commissioner Mary Jolley, who joined the commission in 2008, said commissioners took an important vote on Oct. 2, 2007, when it decided 5-0 to buy electricity from Southern Montana through 2048. "It would have been nice to know that maybe this (loan) is not going to happen (when that vote was taken)," Jolley said. She said she believes top city officials could have been more forthcoming in discussing potential problems with federal loans, adding that the commissioners at the time appeared believe the reassurances that federal loans were secure.

Terry Holzer, general manager of the Yellowstone Valley Electric co-op — a member of Southern Montana — was among co-op officials who gave public reassurances when he did so in a March 2007 interview with the Tribune. "The RUS is ready to fund this project," Holzer said at the time. "We want the city of Great Falls to be a partner. But if they can't, RUS has already talked to us about finding another partner..." Balzarini said that comment was consistent with officials' thinking at the time.Holzer later became a thorn in the side of Southern Montana officials as YVE sought to quit the co-op amid rising costs and other issues. Holzer declined comment last week because YVE and Southern Montana have begun talks to settle a lawsuit between them.

Another reassurance was offered at an Oct. 2, 2007, City Commission meeting by Tim Gregori, general manager of Southern Montana, who said federal financing "continues to move forward." However, some warnings regarding federal financing also were issued in 2007. An article in the May 12, 2007, edition of the Tribune stated RUS officials had announced that the
proposed power plant passed its environmental review. "But RUS officials said President George Bush's current budget proposal recommends no funding for new power plants, such as Highwood Generating Station," the article states. "It will be up to Congress to decide by Oct. 1 to provide the funding. ... 'Until that issue is solved, the plant will not be funded,' said Jim Newby, RUS's assistant administrator of electric programs."

Jolley said she believes local officials could have better explained the status of financing in 2007. "Nobody said, 'No, it's not really secure anymore,' " Jolley said. She also criticized city commissioners at the time for asking few questions about the plant.

Busy year

Plenty was going on with the power-plant project in 2007: city officials were debating actions by a Legislature hostile to the city of Great Falls' electricity venture, consultant R.W. Beck endorsed the project, and Southern Montana gained a joint record of decision from the RUS and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on an air-quality permit. The power plant also sought a zone change from Cascade County that year. As for federal financing, officials did touch on the subject at times in 2007.

Balzarini volunteered at Electric City Power's July 9, 2007, meeting that RUS "was contemplating the idea of adding a loan origination fee to SME's loan somewhere in the 2 percent range," according to meeting minutes. ECP is the city's electric utility arm. Minutes from a Nov. 2, 2007, Southern Montana Board meeting state, "John Lawton noted that SME should be prepared to make a public response to the CoBank and RUS situations. Other trustees agreed." CoBank provided temporary financing for the project. A month later, at the Dec. 3, 2007, ECP meeting in
Great Falls, Balzarini announced that the federal loan was being held up as Congress debated agriculture bills.

According to paraphrased minutes, at the meeting Balzarini said, "Because of this budget issue, Southern Montana is looking at other possible alternatives for the construction financing." "This is not to say that RUS will not be there, but the timing will be a little different than what was anticipated. The goal is still to have construction start this spring," the minutes state, again paraphrasing Balzarini's comments. The announcement that federal funding fell through came in February 2008. Here is the account from the ECP board minutes in March 2008, paraphrasing Balzarini: "RUS had notified SME that, because of the delays in passage of the farm bill and the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) budget, SME should not expect to receive financing from the RUS in the next two years. Ms. Balzarini stated that this possibility has been something the SME Board had taken into consideration for quite some time now. SME is looking into the private finance market for the project financing." In the end, developers tried but failed to get permanent financing for the coal-fired plant, but succeeded in obtaining loans for the smaller natural gas-fired plant last month.

How will this affect Malmstrom AFB and our Minuteman Missles?

Treaty to cut US-Russia nukes; signing in 2 weeks
By ROBERT BURNS and LYNN BERRY, Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON – The U.S. and Russia reached a breakthrough agreement Wednesday for a historic treaty to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the former Cold War rivals, the most significant pact in a generation and an important milestone in the decades-long quest to lower the risk of global nuclear war.
After long and trying negotiations, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are to sign the treaty in two weeks in Prague, once final technical details are worked out, officials in Washington and Moscow said. The accord is expected to cut the number of long-range nuclear weapons held by each side to about 1,500, and it raises hopes for further disarmament in the years ahead.
The deal is seen as sealing an increased level of trust and cooperation between the U.S. and Russia, who possess the vast majority of the world's nuclear arms and have labored under strained relations in recent years.
Obama and Medvedev are expected to seal the deal when they talk by telephone this week, setting the stage for a White House campaign to win Senate ratification. The treaty also must win approval by the Russian Duma, and the two legislative processes are likely to take months.
Robert S. Norris, a longtime analyst of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, said Senate ratification would not be easy.
"Hard negotiations with the Russians will now be followed by hard negotiations with Republican senators to achieve ratification," Norris said.
Though the State Department said the two countries were still working out unspecified final technical details, spokesman Mark Toner said there had been discussions with the Czech government about holding a signing ceremony in Prague — where Obama last April declared his vision of a nuclear-free world.
In fact, Czech officials announced that Prague would host the signing.
They did not give a date, but Russian and U.S. officials said it was expected to be April 8.
The new agreement to reduce long-range nuclear weapons would replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired in December. An important feature of the new deal is that it includes a legal mechanism for verifying that each side complies — an element that was absent from a 2002 deal, known as the Moscow Treaty, that accelerated the weapons reductions laid out in the 1991 treaty.
The Moscow Treaty set limits on both sides' strategic nuclear warheads at between 1,700 and 2,200. The new deal, whose provisions have not been made public, is expected to lower that to about 1,500. It also would reduce the permissible number of strategic launchers — the missiles and bombs that deliver warheads to their targets.
Obama spent an hour Wednesday in the White House briefing Democratic Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Richard Lugar, the committee's ranking Republican. Both would play major roles in ratification of the emerging treaty.
Kerry said he and Lugar would hold hearings to examine details.
"A well-designed treaty will send an important message to the rest of the world that America is prepared to lead efforts with key stakeholders to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons," Kerry said.
Maria Lipman, an expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center think tank, said this week the new treaty could not only reduce the size of both country's nuclear arsenals but also change the psychology of the U.S.-Russia relationship, which has been strained for at least the past six years.
"Gradually the attitude may change to where America is not seen from Russia as a force to be treated with suspicion," she said.
Richard Burt, a former U.S. ambassador and chief U.S. negotiator of the original START agreement, described the about-to-be-announced follow-on treaty as the first significant arms reduction agreement in nearly two decades. He said it advances momentum toward eliminating nuclear weapons.
"This agreement will set the stage for further cuts in U.S. and Russian arsenals and multilateral negotiations for reductions by all nuclear weapons countries," Burt said.
Two senior U.S. officials in Washington said the technical issues still to be resolved were in an "annex" to the main treaty, and they foresaw no hurdles to completing the entire deal within days. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive discussions. One official said an announcement that the treaty is complete is expected by Friday.
A Kremlin source, speaking by telephone to The Associated Press, said all the documents, including the treaty, had been agreed upon. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last week that the treaty was 20 pages long, with an extensive protocol attached.
Negotiations, which have been under way in Geneva since last spring, became bogged down in recent months on disputes over verification measures and Russia's objection to U.S. missile defense plans for Europe.
Russian negotiators have balked at including some intrusive weapons verification measures in the new treaty. The Obama administration has warned that without these, Senate ratification could prove difficult.
The agreement would still leave each country with a large number of nuclear weapons, both deployed and stockpiled.
Norris, the nuclear weapons expert, and Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, estimate that the U.S. has 2,150 deployed strategic nuclear weapons and the Russians have about 2,600. The U.S. has another 2,600 warheads held in reserve, plus 500 non-strategic nuclear weapons, by the two experts' estimate. Another 4,200 retired U.S. strategic warheads are awaiting dismantlement.


Coal waste to be moved from Belt Creek

By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer •
March 22, 2010

Belt Creek looks bucolic, shimmering in the sun like a strip of tinsel as it winds through the town of Belt. It reveals its true colors upon closer inspection. In some areas, the creek looks rusty, almost orange. Along other stretches, the pollution is white, leaching from the bank into the stream like advancing oil sheen. Decades of acid drainage from an old coal mine and buried mining waste are to blame for the funky colors. "It's 'On Golden Creek' it's so bad," said city Clerk Jean Fontana, twisting the title of the old movie "On Golden Pond" to describe the town's polluted gem.

This summer work will begin to truck away approximately 242,000 cubic yards of coal waste buried in the creek's floodplain to a repository located on a bluff along Montana Highway 200, a mile southwest of town. The relocation is expected to take four months, with a fleet of 12 semi-trucks with belly-dump trailers making 200 daily trips to the repository, which will have a multi-layered cap. The job is the first step in a larger reclamation project by the state Department of Environmental Quality to stop the chronic pollution and restore the health —and the natural color — of Belt Creek. "The goal is to have the vast majority cleaned up this field season," said Bill Botsford, a reclamation specialist with DEQ's Abandoned Mine Section.

The coal mine closed in the early 1920s, but its memory survives in living color in the stream. In the early 1980s, the state Department of Lands — the DEQ had yet to be created — oversaw a reclamation project to clean up waste left behind from the mine's heyday. That's when the 242,000 cubic yards of waste were buried on private and state land 20 to 30 feet from the creek, at a cost of about $100,000. Hindsight is 20-20, but Botsford suspects the waste was buried in the floodplain because the priority at the time was limiting exposure to the public. Some of the waste was still burning when it was buried. But now the creek reaches the buried waste during times of high water and carries pollution with it as it recedes. "It's buried in a bad place," Botsford said of the waste.

Belt gets its drinking water from deep wells so the pollution isn't harming the water supply, but the acid drainage is harming aquatic life and fish, Botsford said. Fontana said that fishing along the stream through town is limited to catch and release. The changes in the creek's color are caused by elevated levels of iron, aluminum, copper and sulfate — "all of these sufficient to exceed aquatic standards for fish," Botsford said. The cost to construct the repository and truck the waste there could reach $6 million. The reclamation job, which the state will bid in May, will be paid for with federal funds set aside from levies against coal in Montana and other coal-producing states. Removing the buried waste is a "great start" to solving the pollution problem, said Robin Franzen, the town's water and wastewater operator.

Last week, workers with Pioneer Technical Services, an engineering firm hired by the state, dug test holes in a stubble field on the bluff above town, adjacent to Highway 200, to study the soil and determine the best location for the six-acre repository. "We'll excavate the native material out and then we'll backfill the hole with waste," said Jon Maxwell, an engineer with Pioneer. In turn, material excavated on the hill will be used as fill in the floodplain. Botsford said relocating the waste will only marginally improve the waters of Belt Creek, adding that additional work is needed for a complete restoration. About 150 gallons a minute of polluted water continues to flow from the mine into the creek. The next phase of the reclamation will be draining the water in the mine and diverting runoff before it gets underground.

Wells could be drilled as part of that phase of the work, Botsford said. "Just like little straws, drain the aquifers and intercept the water getting into the mine," he said. Deep-rooted alfalfa also might be planted on the land over the top of the mine to absorb water. Two years ago, the state purchased property sitting over part of the mine workings. The goal is to ultimately return Belt Creek to a more natural state and restore the fishery, but addressing the underground mine workings could take a few more years, Botsford said. "It's just not a simple problem," he said. Fontana said the town of 600 people still uses the creek for fishing and floating. In the summer, people cool off in a swimming hole located just upstream from where the mining waste flows into the creek, she said.

However, residents want to see improvements in the water quality of the creek, which tends to be the most colorful when its flow slows. "It gets worst after the high water, when it settles down and there's not the volume of water to move the sediment on down the creek," she said.
Montana Land Board Embraces Dirty Energy
March 18, 2010

Its a dirty shame.

Today, the Montana Land Board led by Brian "the coal cowboy" Schweitzer decided that its okay to ignore science when money is involved. With a 3-2 vote, the land board took another step closer to mining Otter Creek by leasing the state owned coal tracts to anti-union Arch Coal, also famous for Mountain Top Removal. At .15 cents a ton, they ensured that the Tongue River Railroad, a coal train needed for the mine and for mine expansions in Wyoming, will get its much needed subsidy. Linda McCulloch, Brian Schweitzer, and Monica Lindeen single-handedly assured us that an additional 2.5 billion tons of Carbon Dioxide will enter our atmosphere.

Quite a day's work!

As part of a coordinated effort TOMORROW (Friday, March 19th) we ask that you call Governor Brian Schweitzer (406-444-3111), Secretary of State Linda McCulloch (406-444-2034), and Auditor Monica Lindeen (406-444-2040) and say SHAME ON YOU for selling out Montana and the generations yet to come.

And while you're at it, please call Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau (406-444-3095 or toll free 1-888-231-9393 in state) and Attorney General Steve Bullock (406-444-2026) and say THANK YOU for protecting Montana and not selling our future short! There votes took incredible courage and demonstrated tremendous vision.

If you don't have enough time to make all the calls, you can send them emails by using the following links. Please, try to make time to call
though, we want their phones ringing off the hooks! The emails are:

Governor Brian Schweitzer,

Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau,

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch,

Attorney General Steve Bullock,

State Auditor Monica Lindeen,

This fight isn't over, and we'll need you now more than ever. Stay tuned and thank you for your support!

Sierra Club 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105

Board knew SME financing in trouble year before public

By RICHARD ECKE • Tribune Staff Writer • March
17, 2010

Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative officials knew a year before the public did that federal financing might be falling apart for the controversial Highwood Generating Station.

Representatives of the Billings-based cooperative were told by the federal Rural Utilities Services in a Feb. 6, 2007, meeting that there was no money in then-President George Bush's budget to finance new power plants, according to minutes of a Feb. 16, 2007, meeting of Southern Montana's Board of Trustees. Board members, including former Great Falls City Manager John Lawton, were told about the financing troubles at that meeting. "RUS informed SME that under the circumstances it cannot presently fund the Highwood Generating Station until the budget issues are resolved," the official minutes read.

Members of the public learned in February 2008 that federal financing was not going to happen. The loss of financing was not certain one year earlier, but it was shaky enough that officials immediately began discussing the possibility of canceling orders for equipment for the coal-fired power plant. Later on in 2007, cooperative representatives scrambled to find private financing for the project.

The meeting minutes were among thousands of pages of documents released Monday by the city of Great Falls as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Montana Environmental Information Center. Defendants in the suit were the city and Southern Montana. District Judge E. Wayne Phillips denied a request Monday for a stay of his recent order that all but six previously-sealed documents be released to the public, or an injunction against the city, both of which had been sought by Southern Montana. The judge accused the cooperative of "playing games" by claiming all the documents should be kept secret.

At the time of the 2007 meeting, the Highwood power plant was to be fired by coal, but officials since changed the fuel to natural gas. Phase I of the gas-fired power plant may begin construction east of Great Falls this summer. The Tribune reviewed hundreds of pages of documents Tuesday, including those dealing with the loss of federal financing. Earlier in the decade, officials confidently predicted the power-plant project would receive federal backing.

Bush administration officials suggested in their 2008 budget that such power-plant projects obtain private financing, which Southern Montana eventually unsuccessfully attempted to do for the coal-fired project. Financing for a natural gas-fired plant proved easier to obtain.

Critics of Southern Montana said Tuesday that the cooperative should have released information sooner about the possible loss of federal financing."They should have told the public and should have told the (city) commissioners," said Richard Liebert, chairman of Citizens for Clean Energy, which opposed the coal-fire plant. Mary Jaraczeski, an attorney for Southern Montana, declined to comment Monday on the document's contents. Tim Gregori, general manager of Southern Montana, could not be reached Tuesday.

On Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008, the Great Falls Tribune reported that the federal government had pulled the plug on financing the plant and others like it. Lawton had told city commissioners about the setback in a memo a few days earlier. Earlier in February RUS officials told Southern Montana that the agency would not finance the power plant. "It was certainly disingenuous to keep that from the public," said Anne Hedges, program manager for the MEIC, who said the financing problems emerged before Cascade County granted a zone change for the power-plant project. "I think that the city (of Great Falls) absolutely should have been informed about this." Hedges said her group, people in Great Falls and others will spend weeks poring through what may be more than 5,000 pages of documents that were released Monday.

Judge makes documents available to the public

By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer •
March 16, 2010

Thousands of documents related to a proposed power plant east of Great Falls were released to the public Monday after a district judge ruled that the developer "played games" and made "absurd claims" in attempting to keep the information from the public.

District Judge Wayne Phillips had ordered the city of Great Falls, which has a $1.2 million stake in the plant, to release the documents last week.

But Billings-based developer Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative asked for a stay while it appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the information contained "trade secrets" that would cause "irreparable and prejudicial harm" if made public.

Phillips dismissed SME's request for the stay Monday, and by the afternoon, the documents were being examined by members of the public. "The substantive legal failures and these patently absurd claims of privilege demonstrate why defendant cannot claim irreparable harm," Phillips wrote. "As support for that holding, this court reiterates that it spent over 12 hours of review to find six privileged documents out of hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds."

On Monday afternoon, City Clerk Lisa Kunz released three boxes of documents containing e-mails, memorandums and SME board meeting minutes, some of which had been labeled by SME as "trade secrets." Per the judge's ruling, Kunz withheld six documents, totaling 11 pages.

City Attorney James Santoro said he contacted city commissioners and they responded "with the clear message, 'Release the documents.'" Santoro has emphasized that SME, and not the city, fought to keep the documents secret. Critics of the Highwood Generating Project quickly went to work reviewing the stacks of material Monday afternoon at City Hall.

The city buys its power from SME and has a $1.1 million investment in the natural gas plant planned by SME. Previously, SME wrote off $9 million in losses in a coal-fired power plant it initially had planned at the same site before switching to natural gas. The city's portion of the loss in the coal-fired facility was $1.1 million.

The Montana Environmental Informational Center filed the documents lawsuit three years ago, seeking more information about the city's involvement in the power plant. Aart Dolman, an MEIC member from Great Falls, said he was "elated" the documents were now in the public's hands. "I'm glad the judge upheld Montana law," he said. Dolman and others scanned pages into a laptop computer and said they planned to post the information on the MEIC Web site in a few days.

In seeking a stay of last week's ruling to release the information, SME cited attorney-client privilege, trade secrets and a confidentially agreement signed between the city and the developer. In his response Monday, Phillips said SME could not prove irreparable harm and failed to meet the "high threshold burden for restriction of public review of public documents," citing a 2003 case called "Great Falls Tribune vs. Public Service Commission." Phillips said SME "played games with its designation trade secrets," noting that many of the documents contained political commentary and hyperbole.

Among the documents available Monday afternoon were memos and e-mails between SME and its Highwood Generating Station partners. In early 2008, SME was tight-lipped about its possible sources of financing after the federal Rural Utilities Service said it had decided not to issue low-interest loans for any new coal-fired power plants including Highwood.

Documents show the SME board interviewed Bear Stearns, J.P. Morgan and Bank of Tokyo in November 2007. The public didn't learn that the RUS loan had fallen through until three months later, in February 2008. At least two memos show SME's desire to get Gov. Brian Schweitzer's support for the original coal-fired power plant. "Hal told us the only way the governor would support us publicly will be if we built a wind generator at the site," said a 2005 memo, referring to Hal Harper, the governor's policy adviser.

The developer also was interested in who was seated on the state Board of Environmental Review. Candace Payne, an SME lobbyist, wrote in one memo that she had met with Evan Barrett, Gov. Schweitzer's economic development officer. "During the meeting I took the opportunity to suggest possible candidates for appointment to BER (Board of Environmental Review)," Payne wrote.

Pollution controls on the initial plans to use coal were appealed by MEIC and Citizens for Clean Energy. The Board upheld one of the appeals by the environmental groups, that SME come up with better pollution controls for particulate matter, but dismissed a claim it should install controls for carbon dioxide.

Mary Jaraczeski, an SME attorney, chose not to comment on the ruling. MEIC's Ann Hedges said SME's appeal to the Supreme Court is moot now that the public has seen the documents. MEIC also is suing Cascade County for zoning of the land where the plant would sit to heavy industrial. That case is pending before the Supreme Court.

Order opening city-SME files could become a landmark

March 14, 2010

Public-private partnerships always sound like great things — wins for the public and wins for the private enterprises that get that public work. Politicians like them because of that appeal, and in fact some such partnerships probably work well, especially if they're one-time jobs that government entities may be ill-equipped to handle. However, there's a recurrent, major flaw in the public-private relationship in Montana: the small matter of the state Constitution.

It's not that the Constitution says anything about the need for, or propriety of, such partnerships. What the Constitution does say is plenty about the presumption of openness in government proceedings. In Article II, the "Declaration of Rights," are two sections that bear directly on the way partnerships  should be executed: "Section 8. Right of participation. The public has the right to expect governmental agencies to afford such reasonable opportunity for citizen participation in the operation of the agencies prior to the final decision as may be provided by law. "Section 9. Right to know. No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure."

Unfortunately, when a private entity contracts with a public one, too frequently the default position is that the public is cut off from information about its government's activities, even when public dollars are involved. The phenomenon may be understandable — private enterprises aren't used to conducting their business in the public eye. But with few exceptions, it's not constitutional.

The default should run the other direction, and we've said it many times before: If you're doing business with a government entity in Montana, the public has the right to sit in on meetings and read the documents — something referred to these days as "transparency." The latest example of the "default" heading the wrong direction — of the lack of transparency — has been the city of Great Falls' dealings with Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative in their effort to get a power plant built near Great Falls.

About three years ago, the city and SME withheld reams of documents and memos that had been requested by a plant opponent, the Montana Environmental Information Center. The co-op said the documents should not be released because they contain trade secrets and attorney-client discussions, which are protected by law, plus two city officials had signed confidentiality agreements back in 2003. But District Judge E. Wayne Phillips of Lewistown disagreed, ruling in no uncertain terms that the city must open almost all of the documents to public inspection.

The responsibility for showing that the demand of individual privacy exceeded the merits of disclosure rested on the city and SME, Phillips said, and they did an "abysmal" job of making their case. He said the defendants' attorneys "dumped two boxes of documents on the court's desk and expected the court to do the work." "... They shall not have a second bite at the apple," Phillips wrote.

The plaintiffs — MEIC and the Montana Newspaper Association, which joined the case later and of which the Tribune is a member — called it a victory for good government, but within a day a lawyer for SME had asked Phillips to stay his ruling or enjoin the city from releasing the documents pending an appeal to the state Supreme Court. So, in all likelihood the thousands of documents will remain secret, at least until the case runs its course.

If the plaintiffs prevail in the high court, however, it could mark the beginning of the end to the shroud of secrecy that hangs over public-private partnerships.

We certainly hope so.
Montana High School Students Heading to International Science and Engineering Fair

Originally printed at

For students with scientific oriented career aspirations – science fairs are a perfect opportunity to get a head start.
And today’s Montana Region two Science and Engineering Fair showcased some of the best and brightest high school students in our area.

“I would encourage anyone to do a science project,” says Misha Kearns, a senior at North Toole County High School in Sunburst, “I think it’s great the amount of knowledge that you gain from it and the experience that you have from working with other people and people that are in universities and people that are beyond your level is a really great experience.”

That great experience won Misha 2nd place at last year’s State Science Fair – and brought her to the International Science and Engineering Fair.

This year, she’ll get to do it again – after finishing as the 1st Place Grand Winner.

“It really has a lot to offer for students as far as scholarship money and just being able to be with students your own age that are interested in the same things as you are,” she says.
But selecting Misha and the other winners wasn’t an easy task for the judges.

“There are students here that are very impressive. The schools have been very helpful to them, and supportive. Their teachers have, too. That’s very obvious in the quality and the caliber of the exhibits,” shares Jerry Taylor, a judge and member of Citizens for Clean Energy.

Taylor says this fair is the perfect opportunity for students with scientific ambitions to get their start.

“At this particular age – in high school – they’re developing the scientific process, the mindset so that they can go on, further establish a basis for how to go on further with their studies, participate in the science field and hopefully the energy fields. So that’s what we’re looking for is our young scientists and this is the basis for them to get a good start.”

Besides Misha, Katelyn Gibbs of Great Falls was the 2nd Place Grand Winner and Allison Bye and Haeli Turner finished as the 1st Place Grand Team.

All four will now move on to the International Science and Engineering Fair In San Jose, CA this May.
Power plant developer seeks stay or injunction in documents case

By Tribune Staff • March 10, 2010

A Billings-based cooperative Wednesday sought a stay or injunction against a release of documents by the city of Great Falls. The Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative and the city of Great Falls this week lost a ruling by State District Judge E. Wayne Phillips over documents the city had withheld from public view, largely at Southern Montana's request.

The Montana Environmental Information Center had sued the city and Southern Montana, and the Montana Newspaper Association had intervened on the side of the environmental groupl Phillips had ruled for the MEIC Monday, finding only six documents among thousands of pages of documents that should be kept private and sealed. But Mary Jaraczeski, Southern Montana's attorney, filed a motion Wednesday asking Phillips to stay his order, or issue an injunction to the city of Great Falls ordering the city not to release documents pending an appeal.

The motion noted a Great Falls Tribune story Wednesday in which City Attorney James Santoro said the city would not "sit on" the release of documents. Jaraczeski in the motion argued Southern Montana would suffer "irreparable and prejudicial harm" if the documents were released. Southern Montana has also indicated a willingness to appeal the judge's order to the Montana Supreme Court.

For more on the matter, see Thursday's Tribune online or in print.
Breaking News---One Large Victory Just Won!
Plaintiff (MEIC) Montana Southern Environmental Information Center had sought through a "Summary Judgement" to have released the entire file (Secret Box of Documents between SME and the City of Great Falls). SME has 10 days to ask that 5 docs of the 17,000 pages be considered trade secrets. EVERYTHING else is now open for public inspection. The full court oder can be read HERE.

Beartooth co-op shouldn’t pay for plant it can’t use
ARLEEN BOYD | Posted: Friday, March 5, 2010 12:00 am
Beartooth Electric Cooperative members pay the highest electricity rates in Montana. Our rates rose 25 percent in 2009 and will rise again next month. Now we are about to add to our electricity bills payments on an $85 million loan for phase one of a major power-generating project.
Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative Inc. (Southern), Beartooth’s wholesale electricity provider, contends that building a generating station will secure our power supply and lower our bills.
There is no evidence that Beartooth members will be able to use any power from this plant before 2019, when Southern’s all-requirements contract with PPL Montana, which supplies our power, ends. Yet, we will begin paying immediately for Southern’s gas-fired Highwood Generation Station described by Standard and Poor’s as a $270 million, three-phase, 120-megawatt facility. Southern has recorded financing agreements for the first 40-megawatt phase of the project.
Beartooth members already are paying off debt for Southern’s first effort at power generation. Southern and its for-profit development arm, SME Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative Inc., spent nearly $40 million on the 250-megawatt coal-fired Highwood Generation Station before failing to finance it.
It is hard to see how Beartooth, a very small co-op with low electricity demand, can realize a positive return on the $4 million to $6 million it already has invested in Highwood
Southern has six members: four small co-ops, Beartooth, Fergus, Tongue River and Mid-Yellowstone; Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative, which has filed suit to leave Southern; and Great Falls Electric City Power commercial customers, recruited to justify the original 250-megawatt plant.
Beartooth members have repeatedly underwritten Southern’s expenditures without information or open discussion. Without our knowledge, Southern placed the co-ops’ cheap federal hydropower into a “blended supply.” This allowed Great Falls, which cannot qualify for the federal power on its own, to save $20,000 to $50,000 per month while our rates rose 25 percent.
Electric co-ops pay no state or federal income tax, get low-interest government loans and buy the lowest cost power in the country from federal power-making authorities. In return, they must deliver at-cost, reliable power to rural customers and abide by the universally recognized cooperative principles: democratic decision-making, member control of capital and open information. The principles require Beartooth, Southern, and SME to make the following changes:
• Provide information and insure transparency.
• Pay Beartooth for the power it funds but cannot use.
• Assume no further debt on Beartooth’s behalf without member approval.
• End the conflict of interest for Beartooth’s board president, who simultaneously represents the differing interests of Beartooth, Southern and SME.
Beartooth’s board president serves on the boards of Southern and SME. He represents both sides in negotiations between Beartooth and Southern or SME. This conflict of interest is bad business practice and bad for Beartooth.
Arleen Boyd of Fishtail is a member of Beartooth Electric Cooperative.

Commission votes off Electric City Power board

By RICHARD ECKE • Tribune Staff Writer • March
3, 2010

City commissioners, dismayed by years of losses by the city's electric utility, dismissed all five members of an advisory board Tuesday night by a 4-1 vote. A four-fifths vote was required to remove the members of the Electric City Power board; Commissioner Bill Bronson was the lone commissioner to vote no.

That means Monday night's power board meeting was the last one to be attended in official capacity by the five volunteer board members, Chairman Lee Ebeling and members Bill Ryan, George Golie, Ole Stimac Jr. and Bob Pancich.

At Tuesday night's regular City Commission meeting, power board members received support from several speakers and Bronson, who suggested the removal of the members was premature. "It was not the board that was creating the problem," said Bronson. He said outside forces hurt the city's electrical energy efforts, including the 2007 Legislature.

"Try to make this relationship work ... before you just pitch these guys," said George Paul of Great Falls.

The commission's majority was not convinced, however. Mayor Michael Winters, who had proposed booting the members, said the action was not personal. "We want answers," Winters said, adding board members failed to provide commissioners with information they needed.

After the vote, Winters called the board members honorable people who showed gumption "to take the guff that you have."

Ebeling and Stimac attended the meeting and urged commissioners not to remove them. "We would like to continue to work with you," Ebeling said. "We're certainly open to new ideas, new directions."

Several longtime critics urged the City Commission to take action, however. "I think the board has failed to look after the welfare of the city," said Kathleen Z. Gessaman of Great Falls.

Travis Kavulla, a newly announced candidate for Montana Public Service Commission, suggested board members engaged in wishful thinking while the city's electric utility was "heading for a train wreck." "I just think this board is out of step with what is really happening," Kavulla said.

"I do admit they did not get proper guidance from previous administrations," said Richard Liebert, chairman of Citizens for Clean Energy. But he said that was no excuse for lackluster performance, although he praised efforts of former board member John Gilbert.

Some of the most sharply-worded comments came from retired professor Aart Dolman, who said expulsion of the board members was long overdue. "One thing this community lacks is integrity," Dolman said, going on to criticize the city's electrical supplier for providing misinformation.

Stimac said he was insulted by Dolman's suggestion that power board members gave orchestrated speeches at a Monday night meeting. Stimac said each power board member produced his own arguments why the city should stay in the power business.

The city's utility arm, Electric City Power, began selling electricity to other agencies and businesses beginning in October 2004, after joining and then buying wholesale power from the Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative. Officials said the city was uncertain exactly how much to charge for its electricity and ended up selling the power at a loss for several years. The city's electricity operations went into the black briefly in early 2009, but other financial problems emerged.

Electric rates head up to fund power plant
Associated Press | Posted: Monday, March 1, 2010 10:14 pm
RAPID CITY, S.D. — Black Hills Power says it will put a proposed 26.6 percent electric rate increase in effect on April 1.
The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission has not yet ruled on the request, and, if regulators later reject it, the utility would have to make refunds to customers.
Paying for a new coal-fired power plant near Gillette, Wyo., is a big reason for Black Hills Power’s request, which would raise rates about $18 a month for a typical residential electric customer. About 64,000 customers are in the utility’s service territory.
Black Hills Power filed its request last September.

Power plant documents filed Friday

By RICHARD ECKE • Tribune Staff Writer •
February 28, 2010

Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Fontana Moore said Saturday that documents related to the financing of the proposed Highwood Generating Station were filed with her office Friday.

Moore said the documents will be available for review when the office opens Monday morning for regular business. One of the documents is more than 150 pages long, Moore said.

Great Falls city commissioners said they were not told the documents were filed. "I haven't heard anything," Mayor Michael Winters said Saturday. He expressed some concern that city officials were not told about the filings by the Billings-based plant developer, the Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative. The city is a member of the cooperative.

"That's just another one (example) of them not letting anyone know," Winters said. The city of Great Falls has more than $1 million invested in the power plant project.

"It's been a long, long road," City Commissioner Bob Jones said Saturday. "Everyone was kind of hoping for some type of economic development to take place, as long as it wasn't coal."

The power plant initially was to have burned coal to create electricity, but developers opted last year to pursue burning natural gas instead.

Jones said financing for the plant's first phase, which would produce 40 megawatts of power, "could actually benefit the position the city's in, as long as it's built." He also shared Winters' concerns about the lack of information provided to city officials. "We didn't even know the papers were being filed in Cascade County," Jones said.

First American Title Co. filed three different documents and paid a few thousand dollars in filing fees, Moore said. She added she was not certain about the exact contents of the paperwork.

Southern Montana officials have said financing for the $85 million first phase of the project might be formalized late this month, but they have yet to make a public announcement.

Construction of the natural-gas-fired power plant could begin in the coming weeks or it could take months, officials have said. Winters said he would prefer the city not hold a stake in the plant. The city invested $2.3 million in the coal-fired plant, but its investment dropped to $1.1 million with the shift to natural gas. "It ought to be a totally private enterprise," Winters said.

Meanwhile, city commissioners are scheduled to vote Tuesday night on whether to dismiss the five members of the Electric City Power Board, which advises the city on its electric utility, and take over that panel themselves. Winters proposed that move, citing a lack of information generated by the board.

Jones, a potential key voter, said commissioners will take a stand after hearing all sides. However, he noted that commissioners have the ultimate authority either way. "If we decide Tuesday to eliminate the middle man, so be it," Jones said.

Cooperative board approves Highwood financing
JAN FALSTAD Of The Gazette Staff | Posted: Friday, February 19, 2010 5:00 pm
Board members meeting in Billings Friday voted to authorize a parent cooperative to borrow $85 million to build a natural gas-fired power plant in Great Falls.
Voting 4-1, the Southern Montana Electrical Generation and Transmission Cooperative board agreed to proceed with the loan to build the first phase of the Highwood Generating Plant capable of producing 40-megawatts of electricity, according to Chief Executive Officer Tim Gregori.
Gregori is CEO of two parent co-ops — Southern, which formed in 2004, and Southern Montana Electric, formed in 2008 — that were organized to represent a handful of smaller co-ops wanting to build a power plant.
“Members voted to proceed with the transfer of assets and debt from SME to Southern and to continue on with the loan process,” Gregori said.
The lender, Prudential Financial, required the transfer of $14.4 million in assets and some debt from SME to Southern as a condition to granting the $85 million loan. Southern now will be responsible for financing and building Highwood.
If Phase 2 is eventually constructed, Highwood could produce 120 megawatts of power and cost approximately $210 million. The initial stage could be operational by May or June of 2011 and the power would be sold to the four southern Montana electrical co-ops that still support the project: Beartooth Electric of Red Lodge, Fergus Electric of Lewistown, Mid-Yellowstone Electric of Hysham and Tongue River Electric Coop-erative of Ashland. Electric City Power of Great Falls also backs the plant. These five entities would share the electricity from Highwood.
The largest co-op in the group, Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative of Huntley, which initially supported Highwood, has backed out of the deal and wants to be let out of its remaining 20-year contract with Southern. Yellowstone Valley’s lawsuit to sever ties with Southern is scheduled for trial in April in Yellowstone District Court.
After running into environmental roadblocks and costs that doubled from the first estimates, the initial coal-fired plant was abandoned in January 2009 and replaced with the smaller, less expensive, natural-gas plant project.
On Thursday, Yellowstone Valley asked District Court Judge G. Todd Baugh to delay Friday’s vote. But the judge ruled that it could proceed.
But Baugh also said he thought Southern should let Yellowstone Valley out of its contract and that the Huntley utility should be exempted from the costs of building Highwood.
Yellowstone Valley was the lone “no” vote Friday, Gregori said.
The vote at 3521 Gabel Road was closed to the news media and to any uninvited general co-op members.

Mayor wants City Commission to have more
oversight of Electric City Power

By KARL PUCKETT • Tribune Staff Writer •
February 25, 2010

New Great Falls Mayor Michael Winters wants to abolish the five-member advisory board that oversees Electric City Power, the city's utility arm, and at least one commissioner wants to know what it would cost the city to discontinue ECP all together.

The uneasiness over oversight of the city's power business was expressed at a City Commission agenda-setting meeting Wednesday and comes as Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative is preparing $85 million in financing to construct the first phase of a natural gas-fired power plant east of Great Falls.

The city's ECP buys power from Southern and sells it to government and commercial customers in the Great Falls area. It also has a 5 percent stake in the natural gas plant.

The five-member ECP board makes recommendations to the City Commission on the municipal power business but Winters said commissioners need more direct involvement with the power business to make good decisions.

"It's a take-control issue," he said.

City commissioners agreed to place the advisory board on the agenda for discussion at their meeting next Tuesday.

In the past five years, the city's payments to Southern have been $2 million more than revenues from customers, although that trend reversed in 2009.

Some commissioners also have questioned the city's risk in Southern's plans to build a natural gas-fired power plant east of Great Falls and frustration with a lack of information about the project.

"Right now we're shooting in the dark," new Commissioner Fred Burow said Wednesday.

He asked that city staffers calculate the cost of the city abolishing the city utility — not just the board — and have that information available at the commission meeting.

Winters made it clear that he only wants to discuss abolishing the power board at this time, not ECP.

Commissioner Bob Jones said he also was in favor of city commissioners getting more involved in overseeing the business, but Bill Bronson noted that board members have expertise in areas that some commissioners don't.

Burow, Jones and Winters won election last year when the city's power business was a big issue.

A move to abolish the power board would show the public "we're committed to change," Winters said.

"It appears we've had no information, no documents, nothing to base the decisions (on) we're asked to make and that, to me, is wrong," Winters said.

Commissioners, including the newcomers to office, met recently with power board members to learn more about how it operates and the electricity business.

Burns and McDonnell, an energy consultant that studied ECP for the city, was invited to the meetinglast week to answer questions, and representatives advised commissioners to stay the course with ECP.

"I wasn't comfortable with the answers," Winters said.

Some commissioners have expressed concern that the city isn't getting enough information about the city's risk in constructing the power plant.

Last Friday, the Southern board met in Billings and voted to proceed with seeking financing for the plant but Coleen Balzarini, the city's fiscal officer, did not cast a vote because commissioners refused to officially designate her as a city representative, which was needed for voting privileges.

The largest member of Southern, Huntley-based Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative, voted against proceeding with the gas plant financing. The four other rural co-ops in Southern voted to proceed.

"We're fine with them going out and seeking a loan," Yellowstone General Manager Terry Holzer said Wednesday. "We just don't want our co-op to be held as security for that loan. We don't want our wholesale power contract listed as security on the loan document."

Yellowstone had asked a District Court judge to postpone the Friday vote but the judge ruled in Southern's favor.

Yellowstone is suing to break free of the group because of disagreements over the power plant efforts.

The lawsuit by Yellowstone against Southern Montana was discussed in a closed session by the city commissioners last week. The closed meeting has generated a lot of comment in online forums in Great Falls this week but was not discussed at the work session Wednesday.

Southern Montana originally was planning to build a coal-fired power plant at the site east of Great Falls but decided to construct a natural gas plant instead in the face of numerous lawsuits and hurdles, including a decision by federal Rural Utilities Service to get out of the business of issuing low-cost loans for coal-fired power plants.

Southern Montana invested $40 million in the project and was forced to write off $9.2 million in losses as a result of the switch in plans but last week voted to transfer $14 million in remaining assets from its development arm to Southern Montana for the first phase of the gas plant.

Balzarini said the city lost $1.1 million of its investment in the coal-fired power plant, but another $1.1 million will transfer to the new project. The city is not planning to invest additional funds in the natural gas facility, she said.

The city will have a little less than a 5 percent investment in the total project and rights to that same amount of electricity, she said.

Contracts each member has with Southern for power are serving as security for the loan, Balzarini said. Members would repay their share through higher rates charged by Southern Montana over time, she said.

"If the city has a 5 percent equity investment of the development of the generating facility, 5 percent of the borrowing, in theory, would be an obligation of the city," Balzarini said.
Coal-State Democrats Oppose Global-Warming Rules
By AP News, 2-22-10
WASHINGTON – Eight Democratic senators from industrial states are challenging the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate pollution blamed for global warming.

In a letter written by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the lawmakers said the agency lacks the power to restrict greenhouse gases from stationary sources such as power plants, factories and mines. The lawmakers said Congress — not the EPA — should address an issue with big implications for thousands of U.S. jobs and businesses.

Opposition to EPA regulations by Democrats could pose a serious blow to the Obama administration's effort to restrict heat-trapping greenhouse gases. While the administration is still pushing for Congress to pass a comprehensive climate bill this year, officials have not ruled out controlling greenhouse gases through regulation.

The letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was signed by Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Carl Levin of Michigan and Max Baucus of Montana.

Last month, Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas signed onto a resolution by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that would bar the EPA from issuing regulations to control greenhouse gases.

Murkowski said she welcomed the letter from her Democratic colleagues and noted that 41 senators from both parties support her resolution to halt EPA's actions.

Murkowski filed it in response to an EPA finding in December that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases endanger human health. The finding lets the agency regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

Murkowski said her resolution remains the best opportunity for senators to weigh in before the EPA acts.

"It's a simple issue: Senators either support EPA imposing these regulations without input from Congress, or they don't," she said Monday.

In their letter, the eight Democratic senators say they do not object to EPA regulation of emissions from cars and light trucks, but do question its ability to do anything further under the Clean Air Act.

The letter asks Jackson to clarify the EPA's timetable and suspend any regulations for coal-fired utilities and other industrial facilities until Congress acts on climate and energy legislation.
[End of article]
This article was printed from at the following URL:

Cooperative board approves Highwood financing
JAN FALSTAD Of The Gazette Staff | Posted: Friday, February 19, 2010 5:00 pm
Board members meeting in Billings Friday voted to authorize a parent cooperative to borrow $85 million to build a natural gas-fired power plant in Great Falls.
Voting 4-1, the Southern Montana Electrical Generation and Transmission Cooperative board agreed to proceed with the loan to build the first phase of the Highwood Generating Plant capable of producing 40-megawatts of electricity, according to Chief Executive Officer Tim Gregori.
Gregori is CEO of two parent co-ops — Southern, which formed in 2004, and Southern Montana Electric, formed in 2008 — that were organized to represent a handful of smaller co-ops wanting to build a power plant.
“Members voted to proceed with the transfer of assets and debt from SME to Southern and to continue on with the loan process,” Gregori said.
The lender, Prudential Financial, required the transfer of $14.4 million in assets and some debt from SME to Southern as a condition to granting the $85 million loan. Southern now will be responsible for financing and building Highwood.
If Phase 2 is eventually constructed, Highwood could produce 120 megawatts of power and cost approximately $210 million. The initial stage could be operational by May or June of 2011 and the power would be sold to the four southern Montana electrical co-ops that still support the project: Beartooth Electric of Red Lodge, Fergus Electric of Lewistown, Mid-Yellowstone Electric of Hysham and Tongue River Electric Coop-erative of Ashland. Electric City Power of Great Falls also backs the plant. These five entities would share the electricity from Highwood.
The largest co-op in the group, Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative of Huntley, which initially supported Highwood, has backed out of the deal and wants to be let out of its remaining 20-year contract with Southern. Yellowstone Valley’s lawsuit to sever ties with Southern is scheduled for trial in April in Yellowstone District Court.
After running into environmental roadblocks and costs that doubled from the first estimates, the initial coal-fired plant was abandoned in January 2009 and replaced with the smaller, less expensive, natural-gas plant project.
On Thursday, Yellowstone Valley asked District Court Judge G. Todd Baugh to delay Friday’s vote. But the judge ruled that it could proceed.
But Baugh also said he thought Southern should let Yellowstone Valley out of its contract and that the Huntley utility should be exempted from the costs of building Highwood.
Yellowstone Valley was the lone “no” vote Friday, Gregori said.
The vote at 3521 Gabel Road was closed to the news media and to any uninvited general co-op members.

Contact Jan Falstad at or 657-1306.

Revelation comes out during hearing over co-op dispute
Highwood plant closes in on loan contract
JAN FALSTAD Of The Gazette Staff | Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2010 11:41 pm
Backers of the Highwood Generating Plant near Great Falls expect to land $85 million in financing next Thursday. If all goes well, the gas-fired power plant could be producing electricity by May or June of next year.
The disclosures came at a hearing Thursday afternoon before Yellowstone District Judge G. Todd Baugh, who denied a request by Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative of Huntley to postpone a vote today to approve a corporate restructuring required by the lenders.
Tim Gregori, CEO of Southern Montana Electric and Southern Montana Electrical Generation and Transmission Cooperative, the parent cooperative formed in 2004 by five smaller ones in southern Montana to build a power plant, applauded the ruling. SME was formed four years later, and the new entity had virtually the same name as Southern.
“I thought the ruling was fair. I thought it was appropriate,” Gregori said. “Engineering would start immediately. Construction would take a 16- to 18-month period.”
SME has been in charge of building the power plant. But the lenders want to lend money to Southern instead.
So today, selected co-op members and Electric City Power of Great Falls will meet privately in Billings at 10 a.m. at 3521 Gabel Road to approve the transfer of $14.4 million in assets from SME to Southern. SME will continue to exist in some form, but Southern would be responsible for financing and building the plant.
The complex corporate arrangement dates to a deep rift between Southern and Yellowstone Valley Electric.
In 2004, five electric cooperatives based in southern Montana, plus the city of Great Falls, joined to build a power plant to keep rates lower for their members because cheap hydropower contracts were ending.
The co-ops formed a parent group, Southern, and tried to build a coal-fired plant near Great Falls.
Due to delays and lawsuits, the costs eventually doubled to $950 million. Yellowstone Valley Electric then sued Southern to recoup its costs and to leave the parent cooperative. This dispute is scheduled to go to trial before Baugh in April.
But the other four co-ops still supporting the project — Beartooth Electric of Red Lodge, Fergus Electric of Lewistown, Mid-Yellowstone Electric of Hysham, Tongue River Electric Cooperative of Ashland, plus Electric City Power — formed a second parent cooperative called SME, from which Yellowstone Valley Electric now is excluded. Yellowstone Valley represents one-third of the members in this venture, so it’s the largest co-op.
Electric rates with the co-ops rose an average of 27 percent in 2009 plus 3 percent effective this January, said Yellowstone Valley Electric manager Terry Holzer.
Last January, SME switched from building a coal plant to a more economical and environmentally acceptable natural-gas-fired plant. The first phase of 40 megawatts would costs $85 million, Gregori said. If a second phase is built, the total cost of the plant was estimated at $210 million. The plant, if built, could produce 210 megawatts of power.
Prudential Financial is one of two lenders putting up the $85 million, according to statements from the hearing. The other lender has not been named publicly.
Today, selected members are expected to approve the transfer of $14.4 million of SME assets to Southern. About $7 million of that money would be used to pay off debt incurred so far to plan the gas plant. Another vote is expected to authorize the board to accept the $85 million loan package on Feb. 25 and first contemplated last June.
After losing the attempt to delay the vote, Holzer said the first he heard of any loan contract was in court. He’ll be asking to see the documents today to make sure his co-op is not responsible for any costs of building the plant.
“While we are disappointed in the judge’s decision, we thank him for taking this case on, given his busy schedule,” Holzer said. “We want to review the contract to make certain that Yellowstone Valley’s 14,000 members are protected.”
Baugh said repeatedly in court that he’s been so busy with a triple-murder trial that he didn’t have time to read any of the thick briefs, mostly sealed, in this complex case. Gregori’s team also tried to keep Thursday’s hearing closed to the public and media, but Baugh kept the hearing open.
John Crist of Billings, an attorney for Yellowstone Valley, argued that because four out of six members of the boards of SME and Southern are the same people, the vote must be postponed.
“The same entities that are the sellers are the buyers. That’s the definition of a conflict of interest,” Crist said.
The bad blood runs so deep that Crist said Yellowstone Valley Electric officers believe SME will stick the Huntley co-op with higher power rates at every opportunity and favor the four co-ops that support the plant.
“If they don’t need us to make their deal work, they should just let us go,” he said.
SME attorney Gary Zadick of Great Falls said that isn’t the case.
Southern has a contract to provide electricity to Yellowstone Valley Electric until 2030, and the costs of that contract have to be covered. In addition, Zadick said the bylaws clearly allow Yellowstone Valley Electric to get a refund if it is overcharged.
The judge also urged both sides to negotiate an exit strategy for Yellowstone Valley Electric.
Gregori said Southern board members will try to work out some way to let Yellowstone Valley Electric leave the generating and transmitting group under reasonable terms and conditions not harmful to either party.
When asked why this team effort by cooperatives to build a power plant has created such deep distrust, Gregori said, “I can’t tell you.”
Contact Jan Falstad at or 657-1306.
Missoula News

February 18, 2010

Fire sale 
Latest Otter Creek vote creates dirty double standard
by George Ochenski
Western Montanans got the news last week that British Columbia Prime Minister Gordon Campbell intends to sign an agreement with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer to end coal, coalbed methane or gold mining in the provincial area that drains into Montana's Flathead Basin. Yet, in what can only be seen as a dirty double standard, Schweitzer and two fellow Land Board members voted this week to drastically reduce the bid price for the coal in Montana's Otter Creek tracts, which drain into the Tongue River. Saving British Columbia and sacrificing Montana reveals the schizophrenia within Schweitzer's energy policy—along with more than a little political deceit.
Under world media attention at the Winter Olympics, British Columbia Lt. Gov. Steven Point unveiled the pending agreement with Schweitzer during the traditional Speech from the Throne to the British Columbia Legislative Assembly. "Mining, oil and gas development and coalbed gas extraction will not be permitted in British Columbia's Flathead Valley," Point said, in an obvious attempt to highlight the provincial government's efforts to protect the environment. Schweitzer, meanwhile, said the agreement resulted from years of negotiation, adding that the U.S. and Canadian federal governments would be asked to buy out existing permits and compensate corporations for exploration investments.
The million-acre area, which has seen mining and drilling activity for more than a century, lies just north of Glacier National Park and is home to grizzly bears, wolves and many other sensitive species. It also provides clean, cold water for the Flathead River and Flathead Lake. In recent years, however, coal, oil, gas and gold exploration has increased, leading to intensified efforts by top federal and state officials to pressure British Columbia to not approve additional mineral extraction there.
While the specifics of the agreement have yet to be released, from all indications this will be a significant step toward providing the area with protection commensurate with its natural resources and the drainages it shares with the United States. Of course, there could be stumbling blocks ahead in obtaining the buy-out funding and extending the development ban in perpetuity, but for now, this is very good news for the Flathead.
Travel now to southeast Montana, far from the rich and famous of the bustling Flathead Valley to the Tongue River Valley. While there's a distinct lack of real estate activity, new subdivisions and upscale McMansions, the area is home to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and family ranches that span generations. This serene landscape of gently rolling hills stands in contrast to Glacier's rocky, snow-covered peaks and, unlike the Flathead's west slope, precipitation is sparse and welcome. As a result, both surface and groundwater are very precious commodities for agricultural and domestic use.
More than a decade ago, the federal government bought out a proposed gold mine on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park and, as part of the deal, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican, turned down a $10 million payment and instead opted for thousands of acres and millions of tons of federal coal deposits to be ceded to Montana. These lands, owned in a checkerboard fashion with Great Northern Properties, became known as the Otter Creek tracts. Racicot's successor, Gov. Judy Martz, took control of the tracts about eight years ago and the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to spend $300,000 of state money to have the tracts studied for their commercial potential. Montana spent another $70,000 recently to have the coal values appraised.
In December 2009, the Land Board, comprised of Montana's five top elected officials—all Democrats—voted 4-1 to put the Otter Creek tracts up for lease, settling on a bonus bid price of 25 cents a ton. The bonus payments would be made up front, whether or not the coal was eventually mined. Not coincidentally, Great Northern had just recently announced that it had a bonus bid contract with Arch Coal Co. for 10 cents a ton for their part of the coal deposits, to be paid over a five-year period. To put it in perspective, bonus bid prices for Wyoming coal have brought 80 cents per ton or higher.
Ironically, the only Land Board member to vote against the leases was Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, who gave an incredible speech about our responsibility to future generations as reason to leave the coal in the ground. The speech was met by thunderous applause from Missoula high school students who testified against leasing the coal over concerns about global climate change and their future.
The leases were offered, but no bids were received by the deadline. Instead, an Arch Coal subsidiary spent the price of a postage stamp to send the Land Board a letter telling them they had to lower the price. And just as if we were living in Appalachia, Montana's officials abdicated their leadership responsibilities and jumped to do the company's bidding.
This week, those same high school students, plus more, testified against leasing the coal. And once again, Juneau stood with the students, this time joined by Attorney General Steve Bullock, who, much to his credit, would not vote for such a low price.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who has repeated ad nauseum that the coal must be leased "for the students," moved to lower the price—in spite of not a single student testifying in favor of leasing. She was joined by State Auditor Monica Lindeen and Schweitzer in voting for the fire sale price of 15 cents a ton.
Why is water for Flathead Valley Montanans worth saving, but Tongue River Montanans get their scarce water sacrificed to coal mining? That's our dirty double standard. And why, after endlessly touting himself as "clean and green," would Schweitzer vote for mining coal that is likely going to Pacific Rim customers' dirty power plants? That, sad to say, is nothing but political deceit. We deserve better. But by one vote we, and the future, got short-changed again.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@

FEBRUARY 12, 2010

TO: John Prinkki, Beartooth Electric Cooperative Board President
Subject: Resignation Request, for cause
At our Joliet Town Hall Meeting on January 16, 2010 and a meeting held for Beartooth Electric Cooperative (BEC) members in Clark, Wyoming, a consensus was reached to ask for your resignation. I volunteered to write the request. The BEC members can no longer tolerate or afford the actions of yourself and Tim Gregori of Southern Montana Electric (SME).
It was reported that SME wrote off $9.1 million dollars in 2009. The 2008 income tax report of SME showed that the $9.1 million was written off in 2008. For you to keep this a secret until after the annual BEC meeting and your re-election to the board is intolerable. It constitutes fraud, if not criminally, it was morally wrong. This withholding of the $9.1 million write-off rendered the BEC financial statement presented at the 2009 BEC annual meeting invalid. The members who re-elected you at that meeting did so under false pretenses.
For BEC members to be paying for electricity for Northwestern Energy customers, Southern Montana Electric members and Electric City Power members is ludicrous.
I will remind you that The Beartooth Vigilance Committee presently has over 300 signed petitions for revision of the BEC Bylaws. That is more than the membership present at the 2009 BEC annual meeting. BEC has over 4000 members and there was less than 200 members who voted at the annual meeting. There is something wrong with that.
Larry Luloff
Beartooth Vigilance Committee
208 Stormitt Butte Road
Roberts, MT 59070
c.c. Ron Roodell
Beartooth Electric Board Members

February 10, 2010

Power plan: Just wind, gas The Associated Press
PORTLAND, Ore. — The plan for keeping the lights on across the Pacific Northwest for the next 20 years will also keep greenhouse gas pollution to a minimum.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council is set to release the latest version of its 20-year energy plan for Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.
The council revises the regional plan every five years, and it says that most of the increased demand for electricity can be met with improved efficiency and conservation.
The plan says the rest — amounting to about one-sixth of future demand — can be met by clean wind power and some low-emission natural gas-fired plants. Hydropower still supplies the bulk of Northwest electricity, and no coal plants are expected in the regional plan when it comes up for a final vote by the council on Wednesday.


February 2, 2010

Commissioners split on utility's future By RICHARD ECKE Tribune Staff Writer
Fuzzy issues facing the city of Great Falls electric utility became clearer Monday night.
For one thing, city commissioners said they want to decide by June the short-term fate of Electric City Power.
In fact, three commissioners said at a joint meeting with the power board they think the utility should continue at least through June 2011, when the city's contracts with fewer than 20 customers run out.
That issue was raised by power board member Bob Pancich.
"My recommendation would be to stay in for a while," Pancich said.
"I agree with that," City Commissioner Bob Jones said.
"I think to terminate Electric City Power at this point would be disastrous" and prompt lawsuits, Mayor Michael Winters said.
After two meetings in the Civic Center, City Commissioner Bill Bronson said he agreed with Jones and Winters, who are part of the five-member commission.
"I'm in general agreement with what they said," Bronson said, adding he'd like to see the program continue after 2011.
Two other commissioners were skeptical about Electric City Power's future. The strongest critic, Commissioner Mary Jolley, suggested the city start winding it down. And Commissioner Fred Burow raised questions, for example, where will the city get the money to pay for an accountant with an electricity background when it has run up deficits on its power business?
Additional debate will take place Feb. 18 at 5:30 p.m. at the Civic Center, when commissioners and power board members meet with representatives of Burns & McDonnell, consultants who recommended the city stay in the power business for the time being.
Commissioners and power board members came up with questions they plan to ask consultants. Jolley offered the most questions, a number of them detailed.
Meanwhile, at an Electric City Power Board meeting earlier Monday, Coleen Balzarini, executive director of Electric City Power, said buying renewable energy credits or paying renewable energy credit penalties placed the city electric utility in the red in November and December, contributing to a slight operating deficit for the year. The operating net loss was $8,807 from July through December, she said.
Electric City Power operations mostly ran in the black in the 2009 calendar year, Balzarini has said.
Larry Rezentes, who often offers criticism at city meetings, said consistent city losses in past years put the city in violation of the city's ordinance creating Electric City Power, and he maintained the only option is to shut it down quickly. A majority of the commission did not appear to agree with Rezentes.
Power board member Ole Stimac suggested changing the ordinance so the utility arm could comply.
City commissioners Monday night also recommended Balzarini contact the city's customers — businesses, government agencies and nonprofit groups — to see if they would be willing to contribute more money toward Electric City Power's requirements to buy green energy such as wind and solar power.
Ron Gessaman and Travis Kavulla questioned why a customer with a fixed contract running through June 2011 would voluntarily agree to a rate hike.
On another subject, Balzarini said the cooperative to which the city belongs, the Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative, is getting closer to obtaining financing for a natural gas-fired power plant east of Great Falls.
She said potential financiers have asked the cooperative to arrange for its development arm, SME Electric, to sell power plant assets at the Great Falls site back to the full cooperative. The lender would be more comfortable with that arrangement, she said.
Financing "is getting very close," Balzarini said.

Tribune Fact-Check
February 2nd, 2010 by Travis Kavulla
So today’s sub-headline for the ECP article on the dead-tree edition reads: “Three are in favor of city continuing to run Electric City Power after 2011.”
Hmmm. Pretty sure I sat through that meeting myself, and heard nothing like that.
The Trib
article itself observes that June 2011 is when some provisions expire in ECP customer contracts. I myself have never heard anyone suggest closing down ECP before that date — not Mary Jolley, not Fred Burow, not this blog. So, quite simply, when one gets beyond the untrue sub-headline, there’s not really any news there. Rich Ecke — please menace your copy editor.
The big news of the evening is that, on the recommendation of Fred Burow, the commission set a deadline of June 2010 to make a decision on ECP’s future. More on ECP shenanigans later.

Status of 4 power-line projects in Montana
Gazette State Bureau | Posted: Saturday, January 30, 2010 11:30 pm
HELENA — At least four major power lines to export electricity from Montana are on the drawing board. Here is the status of the projects:
Mountain States Transmission Intertie (MSTI): NorthWestern Energy, Montana’s largest electric-and-gas utility, is proposing this 430-mile, $1 billion line run from Townsend to southern Idaho.
The 500-kilovolt line would transport power generated in Montana to southwestern markets. A draft environmental impact statement on the project is expected this year, and NorthWestern plans to accept bids this spring for space on the line. Construction is slated for 2014 or 2015.
Collector System: NorthWestern also is proposing this network of lines to gather power from wind farms in Montana and route it to the Townsend hub for transmission elsewhere.
Bids for space on the lines will be accepted at the same time as MSTI. Construction of all or portions of the line could begin in 2014 or sooner.
Chinook Transmission Project: TransCanada of Calgary, Alberta, is proposing this $3 billion line from Harlowton to southern Nevada. It says the 1,100-mile line would carry mostly new wind power to the Southwest.
In December, the company accepted bids from energy developers and suppliers to buy space on the line. TransCanada plans to announce winning bids by spring.
If all goes well, TransCanada will file for permits and conduct an environmental review between now and 2012 and start construction in 2012, a company spokesman said.
Colstrip transmission line upgrade: NorthWestern, utilities from Oregon and Washington and the Bonneville Power Administration are considering this project, which would increase the capacity of lines between Colstrip and the Pacific Northwest by 30 percent. The partners say the line is supposed to move power from renewable sources, likely wind, from Montana into Washington and Oregon.
Discussions are under way on how the ownership and cost would be divided. The earliest the upgrade would occur is 2012.
The Coal Ash Industry Manipulated EPA Data
Friday 29 January 2010
by: Joshua Frank, t r u t h o u t | Report
The coal ash industry manipulated reports and publications about the dangers of coal combustion waste, reports Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group stated that the Environmental Protection Agency allowed the multibillon-dollar coal ash industry to have virtually unfettered access to the EPA during the Bush administration and now under President Obama.
As a result of the industry's formal relationship with the EPA, insiders were allowed to edit and ghostwrite publications and official reports on the effects of coal waste. The documents obtained by PEER indicate that the coal ash industry "watered down official reports, brochures and fact-sheets to remove references to potential dangers" of coal ash waste. Additionally, the so-called "environmental benefits" of coal ash were repeatedly aggrandized.
"For most of the past decade, it appears that every EPA publication on the subject was ghostwritten by the American Coal Ash Association," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose group examined thousands of coal industry and EPA communications. "In this partnership it is clear that industry is EPA's senior partner."
There is little debate that coal ash is toxic, despite what the wavering EPA and steadfast coal industry purport.
Coal ash is the sludgy muck that is left over after coal is burned to produce electricity and is often laden with heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and selenium. These harmful substances can produce cancer, kidney problems and nervous-system disease. The amount of heavy metals in coal-ash depends largely on the type of coal burned. However, all coal produces this waste, even though the toxicity may vary slightly depending on the type of coal being incinerated.
While the EPA continues to discuss whether or not it should classify coal ash as a hazardous waste, the environmental and health effects of a coal slurry impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Kingston coal-fired power plant in Harriman, Tennessee, are still not known. The December 2008 catastrophe caused more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash to enter the Tennessee River.
The spill was over 40 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Approximately 525 million gallons of black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River - the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama and Kentucky. The true adverse effects of the spill are still not known.
An immediate crackdown on TVA and other coal-slurry impoundments by the EPA was likely sidelined as a result of the American Coal Ash Association's formal partnership with the EPA during the Bush administration. If coal ash were deemed a hazardous waste, coal companies could potentially lose billions of dollars in revenue, as they would not be able to promote their toxic coal ash substances for agricultural, consumer and industrial use.
It seems as if the efforts of coal industry representatives have paid off handsomely. Back in 2002, the EPA released a report that indicated the agency had information on the risks of coal ash, yet requests for the data under the Freedom of Information Act were either denied or the documents that were released, with the estimates of cancer risks, were largely blacked out.
Then in 2007, an EPA study found that people living near coal ash sites had as high as a 1-in-50 chance of developing cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water. The report also showed that living near such storage sites raised an individual's risk of damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and other organs exposed to toxic metals in the ash. But the report, according to the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, only made available some of the data, while covering up the true extent of the health risks associated with coal ash.
Recent documents obtained by PEER indicate that the coal industry had access to these health reports and was successful in manipulating the information presented to the public about coal ash's negative effects on humans and the environment.
References indicating the "high-risk" potential of coal combustion waste were deleted from PowerPoint presentations. Cautionary language about coal waste uses in agricultural practices was altered in order to remove negative connotations. In 2007, the coal ash industry inserted language in an EPA report to Congress about how "industry and EPA [need to] work together" in order to block or water down "state regulations [that] are hindering progress" in the use of coal ash waste.
"It is no joke - the terms of the coal ash partnership tuck EPA snugly into bed with industry for the purpose of marketing coal combustion wastes as a product," Ruch of PEER added, noting that the partnership has now crossed over into the Obama administration. "EPA is supposed to be an objective regulatory agency dedicated to protecting the public instead of protecting a gigantic subsidy for a powerful industry."

I knew when I chose to offer a detailed dissection of the Burns &
McDonnell report on Electric City Power that I might be vulnerable to an
“O.J.’s glove” moment.

In his guest opinion published in the Tribune Jan. 14, ECP board member
Bob Pancich, taking items out of context from an 18-page document backed
up by 15 pages of exhibits, must believe he has found just such an “if the
glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit” moment.

I have since seen the document that Mr. Pancich claims refutes my argument
that NorthWestern Energy’s electric supply costs were overstated in the
Burns & McDonnell report.

As I reviewed that document, along with some supporting documents, it
became readily apparent that Burns & McDonnell and I employed distinctly
different methodologies in calculating NWE costs.

I relied on the methodology that manifests itself in the monthly bill of
300,000 NWE customers. In their methodology to present NWE power supply
costs, they added certain costs and subtracted other numbers, such as the
deferred supply credit. All the while, the Burns & McDonnell report did
not describe that methodology or cite the sources for the data. Therefore,
I had no way to understand or test the difference at the time I did my

Of course, the whole comparison with the NWE electricity supply costs is
something of a side-show, kind of like O.J.’s glove.

The NWE costs could have been higher or lower than ECP rates at any level
and that would not have made a penny’s difference in the size of the
operating deficit ECP accumulated during the period.

Not one penny. That deficit only eased when Soutern Montana Electric
Generation and Transmission Cooperative offered a “lower, blended” rate to
ECP midway through fiscal 2009. On the heels of a year when SMEC lost
$7,383,319 and saw its net assets decline by $6,659,735, that was a very
generous ges-ture, indeed.

However, one cannot expect such “lower, blended” rates to continue,
unless, of course, the member cooperatives of SMEC wish to keep raising
rates to unprecedented levels for their own members. After all, the
“lower, blended” rates for ECP have translated to “higher, blended” rates
for the cooperatives’ customers.

Interestingly, on page 3-3 of their report, Burns & McDonnell acknowledge
that the deficit will reappear in fiscal year 2011 unless there are
substantial increases in the rates paid by ECP customers.

They have recommended an immediate 10 percent increase in ECP rates,
followed by annual 5 percent increases. At that point, I think it will be
hard to argue that ECP rates are competitive in comparison to any
alternatives. The only other way to avoid future deficits is for further
increases for the members of the SMEC cooperatives in order to fund more
“lower, blended” rate arrangements for ECP.

The Great Falls City Commission has some enormous decisions to make
relative to the fate of ECP.

I have offered my analysis, not to dictate the decisions they ultimately
make, but to broaden the information base upon which they may rely to
inform their decisions.

I wish them well and stand ready to answer any questions they may have.

Greg Jergeson, Chinook, is chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission.

January 19, 2010

Land board approves wind project
HELENA (AP) — The state land board has agreed to lease land for a new wind power project near Big Timber.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation says that the lease covers 640 acres of state school trust land. The state will get a minimum of $21,000 a year from the lease, or more if the project is fully developed.
The Coyote Wind Farm proposes to place eight of its 44 turbines on state land.
The 79-megawatt wind farm is now trying to line up contracts for the electricity. The proposed wind farm, being built by Enerfin Energy Co., is the third major wind-power project in Montana to be approved on state land. The land board unanimously approved the plan Tuesday.


January 17, 2010

MATL could unleash torrent of wind projects By KARL PUCKETT Tribune Staff Writer
A biting wind whipped across the snow-covered Montana prairie as Clayton Larsen and John Mattheis took soil samples from 30 feet below the surface north of Conrad late last week.
The men, who work for SK Geotechnical in Billings, are helping to build the $215 million, 230-kilovolt Montana Alberta Tie Line — a transmission line that could be the key to the future of wind development in the region.
With calls for more renewable energy increasing, new plain-looking pole-and-wire projects such as MATL are sprouting up in anticipation of the construction of more eye-catching wind farms.
The first stage of construction of MATL, which will carry up to 300 megawatts in each direction, began this month with soil testing.
The project is part of more than $2 billion in proposed transmission projects in Montana that could progress this year, with the lines a direct response to demands from wind developers who are banking on the lines to ship power from the boondocks to big cities.
The U.S. government also has a big stake in the success of MATL and other lines like it.
Last year, $3.25 billion in low-cost loans, which were part of the federal stimulus bill, was approved for 15 Western and Midwestern states, specifically to build transmission lines that ship renewable energy.
Tonbridge Power Co., MATL's developer, was the first company to receive a loan, which could be as much as $161 million.
The Toronto-based company was one of about 200 developers that applied for funding, said Bob Harris, regional manager of the Upper Great Plains Region of the Billings-based Western Area Power Administration, which includes most of Montana, the Dakotas and parts of Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
WAPA is in negotiations with additional developers about loans for other transmission projects.
"It tells me there's a lot of interest in renewable energy development — and typically they're not close to the load," Harris said.
Without new transmission projects, all the talk about building wind farms and developing other forms of green energy will end up being mostly hot air, according to industry experts.
In the past, power generation facilities such as coal-fired power plants typically were constructed close to the people who would use the power, Harris said.
However, the power delivery model is changing.
States are passing laws requiring the use of more renewable energy, but that green power often is located in remote rural areas such as windy Montana, while the demand is thousands of miles away in big cities. That generation model requires new transmission lines to ship the power.
"We are sure this is going forward," said Bob Williams of Montana Alberta Tie Ltd., the Tonbridge Power subsidiary in charge of the construction of MATL.
MATL first to fruition
MATL is the first of the proposed power transmission projects in Montana to proceed from blueprints to construction.
Four years in the making, work on the line began the first week of January with soil testing.
"We're just drilling a soil boring for the turning point for their line," SK Geotechnical's Larsen said Thursday, before tromping through the snow and climbing over a fence to reach the drilling rig.
The most critical testing areas are where the line changes direction, such as the location north of Conrad where SK Geotechnical worked Thursday, Williams said.
Tonbridge has received the permits and financing it needs to build the line, which Williams said will take 18 months to construct, with the first poles going in the ground in May.
Poles will be planted in farm fields along a 214-mile stretch of windswept farmland between Great Falls and Lethbridge, Alberta.
Its immediate impact will be transporting what is now stranded wind power in Montana north to Alberta markets, where peak demand is 10,000 megawatts. The line will be energized sometime in 2011.
Williams said negotiations with the more than 300 landowners along the route in Alberta and Montana have picked up. Easements need to be negotiated before poles are installed, and final engineering is occurring now in advance of physical construction.
Three wind developers have purchased the shipping rights to the line.
Tonbridge officials said that once the transmission line is finished, $1 billion worth of wind farm investment could spring up along its path.
"It's all about transmission," said Bill Alexander, chief development officer for NaturEner USA and NaturEner Canada. NaturEner already has purchased shipping rights on MATL. "Markets are coming back. Energy prices are strengthening. It's now just a matter of getting the transmission (capacity) to move the energy to market."
Project north of Cut Bank
At a cost of $800 million, NaturEner plans to construct a 309-megawatt wind farm called Rim Rock between U.S. Highway 2 and the Canadian border once MATL is done, Alexander said.
The Rim Rock project would be due north of the 210-megawatt, $500 million Glacier Wind Farm that NaturEner completed last year in Toole and Glacier counties. Existing transmission is shipping that power to out-of-state markets, including California.
Mark Jacobson, director of business development for Chicago-based Invenergy, which owns the Judith Gap wind farm in Montana, said the No. 1 hurdle facing wind development is a lack of transmission, but building lines is a challenge. Obtaining the necessary permits and financing are the biggest obstacles to building new transmission, he said.
"If it was easy, everybody would be doing it," he added.
Tonbridge's approach possibly could serve as a model, Jacobson said. Tonbridge formed specifically to construct transmission projects, charging developers to use the lines.
South of Great Falls
With MATL under way, the company has turned its attention south of Great Falls.
In November, Tonbridge announced it was partnering with Irish wind developer Gaelectric, which has an office in Great Falls, to study a 100-mile transmission line between Great Falls and Townsend. That line, called the Green Line, would be a southern extension of the MATL project.
Even after the construction of MATL, Jacobson said a transmission logjam exists at Great Falls, preventing power from being shipped south to reach bigger transmission lines that eventually go out of state.
Invenergy, which already owns space on MATL, is in discussions with Tonbridge about securing capacity on the Green Line, Jacobson said.
"I think that's a very strong idea for solving the transmission problems in Montana and providing export opportunities," he said.
Montana currently produces about 375 megawatts of wind power. The state's overall electricity production is 5,445 megawatts.
Approximately 4,882 megawatts of new power generation projects are waiting for access to NorthWestern Energy's transmission queue, with about half of that total tied to wind farms, company spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch said.
That's more wind electricity than the approximately 1,900 megawatts the state's users currently consume from all sources.
Nationwide, almost 300,000 megawatts of wind projects are waiting in line to connect to the electrical grid as a result of inadequate transmission capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
NorthWestern has big plans
In addition to MATL, NorthWestern is proposing new lines to meet demand from wind developers, including the $1 billion, 500-kilovolt Mountain States Transmission Intertie from Townsend to Jerome, Idaho.
Rapkoch said the utility is expecting a final decision on the line from the state Department of Environmental Quality this year, and hopes to begin construction soon after that, with the goal of energizing the line by 2015.
NorthWestern also is studying construction of new "collector" lines, or smaller transmission lines, in five locations in Montana where interest is heavy in wind development, including north of Great Falls. Each of the collector projects would cost as much as $220 million. The goal is to have those upgrades completed by 2014.
"New transmission needs new generation and new generation needs new transmission," said Rapkoch, comparing the question of whether to build new transmission or wind farms to the classic chicken-and-the-egg question.
Before proceeding with the risk of constructing the new collector lines, NorthWestern is planning an "open season" later this year in which the utility will accept bids from wind developers interested in reserving space, Rapkoch said.
NorthWestern is planning to pass along the expense of building the new transmission lines to the shippers and not existing ratepayers, Rapkoch said.
Cascade County would be seeing explosive "Texas-type" growth in wind energy if not for the physical limitations of the existing transmission system, according to Cascade County Commissioner Peggy Beltrone, who developed the county's wind promotion program.
In Texas, 8,200 megawatts of wind power are on the grid — the most in the nation.
Beltrone called MATL a bright spot in the short term, but said large-scale wind power will be stranded until multi-state cost allocation and permitting issues are addressed and new transmission is built in the West.
"In the meantime, there will be a push to look for strategic, smaller opportunities on the existing system," she said


January 13, 2010

Company eyes wind farm near Glasgow By KARL PUCKETT Tribune Staff Writer
A 100-megawatt wind farm is being proposed on state school trust lands 20 miles north of Glasgow, while plans for another wind farm in the same area have been scrapped.
Mary Sexton, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said Tuesday that the DNRC received a request from Florida-based Sansur Renewable Energy, Inc., asking that 7,256 acres of school trust land be opened to competitive bids for the rights to explore wind energy production.
"This is all on state land, which is pretty unusual," Sexton said.
Wind development on school trust land typically is part of larger projects involving adjacent private land.
However, it doesn't surprise Sexton that developers are interested in the area because some transmission capacity does exist there, she said.
To date, 13 wind turbines have been constructed on school trust land in Montana, contributing $60,000 annually to the Common Schools trust. Trust lands are playing a key role in realizing the state's wind development potential, Sexton said.
On Tuesday, the Montana State Land Board will consider approval of a lease for the Coyote Wind Project near Springdale in Sweet Grass County.
The Coyote project features 36 wind turbines on private land, as well as eight turbines on trust land.
Securing exploration rights is the first step in developing a wind farm on state land as it allows an energy company to install measuring equipment to collect wind data and assess the project's feasibility.
Meanwhile, Texas-based Greenhunter no longer is planning what would have been the state's largest wind farm 26 miles north of Glasgow, said Mark Albers, who is in charge of the Great Falls Bureau of Land Management field office.
A right-of-way permit issued to Greenhunter to access meteorological towers has expired and the company did not ask to have it renewed, Albers said.
Greenhunter officials said in 2007 that they were pursuing a 500-megawatt wind farm on 20,000 acres of BLM, state school trust and private land. The project later was scaled back to 170 megawatts on 6,700 acres, and then finally to 50 megawatts.
A lack of transmission lines to transport the power out of the area was an obstacle for the project, Albers said. Greenhunter originally proposed building its own transmission.
"He was going to have to put in a big line. It looked like a very speculative project," Albers said. "It either didn't develop the way they thought it would — or that, combined with the push back they were getting."
Conservation organizations raised concerns about the original location of the proposed Greenhunter project because it was so close to the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study, which is managed by the BLM.
Sexton said the Sansur proposal is located several miles southeast of the former Greenhunter project.


January 12, 2010

City, power board discuss openness, future By KARL PUCKETT Tribune Staff Writer
Great Falls' new commissioners questioned the financial risk of continuing in the electricity business while the city manager raised concerns about the city's relationship with its supplier at a rare joint meeting of the City Commission and Electric City Power Board on Monday.
The meeting was designed to bring new members of the commission up to speed on the complicated electricity business and set a course of action for the future on the controversial issue.
At the meeting's conclusion after two hours, even the city's harshest critics were pleased with the open discussion.
"I think this is a good move toward accountability, transparency and oversight," said Rich Liebert of Citizens for Clean Energy, adding that "ignorance is not bliss."
Great Falls City Manager Greg Doyon called the meeting a step in the right direction and the most important he'd attended since joining the city two years ago.
He specifically cited discussion of subjects that had been "languishing for awhile" — including the structure of ECP and the city's relationship with Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission, the group of electric cooperatives from which the city purchases power.
In recent years, critics have blasted the city for financial losses and for not meeting requests for information about the venture.
Doyon noted his uneasiness with the fact that city staff can't disclose information to commissioners obtained at SME board meetings because of privacy issues.
SME, which is made up of rural cooperatives, is not subject to the same open meetings and records requirements as the city.
"That's a problem for me," said Doyon.
"If there are risks — and there are — that needs to be disclosed as well," Doyon added.
New City Commissioner Fred Burow also said not enough public information was being provided and suggested the city hire an attorney specializing in energy.
"Relying on SME's attorney for information is not the thing we should be doing," Burrow said.
But some ECP board members said the city shouldn't be quick to abandoned ECP.
The board advises the City Commission on matters related to the utility arm.
Events beyond the city's control have played roles in ECP's difficulties, Bob Pancich said. One was when the Legislature in 2007 voted against a bill that would have allowed the city to sell power to smaller customers. Another was when the federal government decided to quit providing low cost loans to rural utilities, which hurt SME's attempt to build a coal-fired power plant.
"Cost-based power is a valuable commodity," Pancich said.
The 10 members who attended agreed to schedule another joint meeting Feb. 1, when they will go over a $60,000 report on ECP completed by consultant Burns and McDonnell.
"We should review it page by page, bullet by bullet," said Lee Ebeling, an ECP board member.
In March, the consultant plans to attend an ECP meeting to discuss its findings, which include a recommendation that the city not abandon the electric utility arm.
Resident Larry Rezentes, one of about 18 people in attendance, noted that the city has had years of operating losses, despite an ordinance requiring a profit. He suggested that Burns and McDonnell be asked to provide a formal plan on an exit strategy.
In the only sharp exchange at the meeting, new Mayor Michael Winters interrupted Rezentes after he criticized a board member and city staffer, which Winters had warned against at the outset.
"We are not going to be bullied into a rash, rapid decision," Winters said.
Commissioner Mary Jolly also recommended the city get out of the electricity business. She said the city lacked the expertise to run an electricity arm. "It's a tough business," she said.
New Commissioner Bob Jones stopped short of saying the city should get out, but added that he was concerned about the risk going forward. He added that the biggest problem with ECP is the "public doesn't understand what's going on."
ECP, formed in 2003 after NorthWestern Power canceled power contracts with the city, has been losing money up until 11 months ago, according to city officials.
Commissioner Bill Bronson said local entities have succeeded in public power initiatives and that the city has to be flexible going forward.
"To me, what it boils down to, is what makes the most sense for us," he said.
The city had been involved with SME's effort to construct a coal-fired power plant east of Great Falls, but those plans fell through after SME lost a low-cost loan from the federal government and ran into legal challenges.
The city had to write off $1.1 million in that venture.
SME is now planning to construct a natural gas plant at the same site. The city has pulled out of the development of the power plant, but it still gets it power from SME.
Winters called the power venture the most contentious facing the commission. He wants the issue resolved.
"Our City Commission seems to have lost trust and faith with the public and we're trying to get it back," he said.

Breaking News.....

The Burns & McDonnell Report - Reflects sloppy work potentially having serious consequences for ECP and the city of Great Falls. City taxpayers paid for a very
substandard analysis from this firm. More taxpayer funds ($60,000) down the drain with no reliable answers and no one, apparently, answerable for another city hall fiasco!

The full PSC Chairman's report, the B & M report, and the Great Falls Tribune article covering the story.

The quotations below gives a partial indication of what is contained in this very revealing analysis from a board member of the Montana Public Service Commission (PSC) in response to the recently released Burns & McDonnell report commissioned by the city of Great Falls to analyze the viability of ECP.

"Apparently, Burns & McDonnell abandoned President Reagan’s standard of “trust and verify,” and employed President George W. Bush’s standard employed with Vladimir Putin, “I looked into his eyes and saw his soul. ”If they had actually tested the representations made to them by the management of SMEC and ECP, they would not have made the errors identified in this document throughout their report". (emphasis added)

"Again the consultants talk about a 10% rate increase for ECP customers. What if half of the load represented by ECP customers does not agree to the increase? Are the remaining customers going to be asked for a 20% increase?"

"Since the actual ECP savings compared to NWE costs are negligible, why wouldn’t ECP customers calculate that a 10% increase, in addition to subsequent 5% annual increases, would cost them more than moving to NWE?"

"Is the recommendation that ECP hire a staff accountant a commentary on the competence of the city employees who have been doing the work so far, or is it an admission the City has been paying the “service costs” of ECP all along by delegating an otherwise employed member of the City’s staff to “double-duty” on ECP?" (emphasis added)

January 7, 2010

City Commission, power board to meet next Monday
Members of the Great Falls City Commission and the Electric City Power Board will meet Monday at 5:30 p.m. in the Missouri Room of the Civic Center.
The new commission wanted to meet with its advisory board to discuss several issues. One will be whether to hold a long-distance joint meeting with consultants who recently reported on the electric utility's future.
Consultants Burns & McDonnell of Kansas City, Mo., recommended the city continue to sell electricity for the immediate future.
Monday's meeting may help set a date for the session with consultants. City Manager Greg Doyon has said a face-to-face meeting with consultants would be more expensive than holding a meeting through video-conferencing.
The Civic Center is located at 2 Park Drive S.

CC ECP Meetings Week of January 11

January 4, 2010

Consultant report on Electric City Power incomplete, whitewash By LARRY REZENTES
At a cost of $60,000, Burns and McDonnell satisfied city government's need to self-justify, but missed the mark recommending that Electric City Power continue in business providing electric power to its 18, primarily business, customers.
In supporting the city's history operating ECP while it generated large losses in violation of Ordinance 2925; of botched investment; and of wasting millions of taxpayer dollars; the report is a whitewash, and unconvincing.
The consultants acknowledge the city's violations of Ordinance 2925; as do auditors' "Special Emphasis" reports on ECP and prior City Attorney David Gliko.
The only valid use of the consultant's services would have been development of an exit plan. Ironically, but not surprisingly, such a plan was not prepared.
The consultants reported to the city commissioners and mayor and had as primary sources of information, together with them, city managers (current and past), and the city finance director/executive director of ECP.
Other than Commissioner Mary Jolley, these are the very individuals who spearheaded the program; supported its continued operation in violation of the ordinance; oversaw and managed the program; and watched as millions of taxpayer's dollars were wasted.
The city engaged the consultants to provide support for a decision that under city law they had no right to make, and stacked the deck to assure they would obtain the recommendation desired.
The report, touting savings for ECP's customers (the list including big business enterprises such as FedEx and General Mills), ignored that those savings occurred at a cost to the taxpayers of millions of dollars, and resulted from initial subsidized pricing to these customers.
What benefit did the taxpayers of Great Falls get from these losses and subsidies? How did any such supposed benefit compensate for loss of the ability to fund (without proposing additional tax burden rejected by the voters) needed hiring of police officers and firefighters? What benefit will the citizens and taxpayers of Great Falls receive from continuing this diversion of city time, attention and finances?
Now the theory is that ECP is in prospect of making money. Is this prospect real, and enough to justify the continued diversion of the city's attention in light of its history of misspent millions? Is the consultant's solution of negotiating rate increases to existing customers (suggested at 32 percent but settling at 10 percent to avoid loss of customers) realistic given existing contractual rate commitments to customers?
The report erroneously states: "In the last full fiscal year alone that trend reversed and ECP for the first time showed a positive cash flow by collecting more revenues from its customers than the amount paid to SMEC (Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Co-op) for power purchases."
In fact, ECP financials show an excess of payments over receipts from customers of $318,885 for the fiscal year ended June 30 ($9,027,329 customer receipts and $9,346,214 payments). The cash drain has continued.
Further, Burns and McDonnell's assessment of ECP profitability is based on use of the "transitional/blended rate" for ECP cost of power in ECP's financial reporting. Out of pocket, ECP in fact continues to pay for power what it paid before.
Recognizing the full cash paid for power, ECP continues to lose taxpayer's money. ECP's reporting may, at the margin, conform to acceptable application of accounting principles, but does not conform to reality for the taxpayers.
Year-to-date ECP financial statements continue to reflect this fiction. Adjusting ECP financial statements to reflect full cost paid for power, ECP continues to lose money.
It belies common sense for ECP to recognize benefits from the "transitional rate," assuming ultimate recovery of the associated "deposit," pending resolution of the Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative lawsuit challenging its availability to ECP, among many uncertainties.
Repayment to SME of a $1.2 million liability for the "water credit," resulting from initial subsidized ECP customer pricing, is a major such uncertainty.
Unstated is that the zoning of the land owned by SME, to be used for Highwood Generating Station, is currently under appeal before the Montana Supreme Court to overturn the resultant conversion of farm land to heavy industrial use.
Should the justices conclude the zoning was improper, the project itself, even as currently configured as gas-fired, would fail.
Repayment would be demanded from ECP without the consumption of water by HGS in prospect as the source of repayment, placing deposits in the hands of SME in jeopardy.
Overstated are risks of claims resulting from a shutdown, including that of a claim by SME for "stranded cost." ECP in fact possesses limited assets as a source of recovery for such claims, should it simply be liquidated.
Additionally, the consultants mislead when they state that "...Ordinance 2925 does not state any time period for its criteria of 'revenues sufficient to pay all ECP expenses,'" without continuing the citation to include "at all times."
They take the position that the break-even requirement does not state a time period and "has been an ineffective tool."
What do the consultants not understand about the meaning of "at all times"? Their recommendation that the city amend (they say "update") the ordinance
ex post facto,seemingly to render "matter-of-fact" the city's violation, is outrageous. The major deficiency in the report, in fact, is its lack of a plan to exit Electric City Power, given the requirement to comply with Ordinance 2925.
Our new mayor and city commissioners will need citizen support to terminate ECP despite the recommendation of the consultants, and without such a plan. I suggest that they first ask Burns and McDonnell to "update" (in fact to complete) the report to include such a plan, at no further cost to the city.


January 3, 2010

Future unclear for Malmstrom, MANG as arms control, mission review move forward By PETER JOHNSON Tribune Staff Writer
Great Falls business leaders firmly believe the steady financial clout provided by Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Air National Guard has helped central Montana avoid severe shifts in the national economy.
"With the stability provided by Malmstrom and the Air National Guard, Great Falls doesn't have the highs and lows of some other communities," contractor Brad Talcott said.
After all, the two units combined employ about 5,000 people, counting part-time Guard members, and account for an estimated $450 million in annual, recession-proof spending. That figure includes payroll, construction and operations, as well as the spinoff service jobs they spur for local businesses, schools and government agencies.
Both Malmstrom and MANG have been strong underpinnings of the local economy and major contributors to the national defense since just after World War II.
Malmstrom has been primarily a missile base since its first flight of 10 Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles was rushed into alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Montana Air National Guard has flown seven types of fighter planes since the late 1940s.
But in the upcoming months or possibly the next few years, there's a fair chance that the major mission of both Malmstrom and MANG could be trimmed back, changed or even eliminated.
President Barack Obama is negotiating a new arms-reduction treaty with his Russian counterpart that's expected to substantially reduce the number of long-range nuclear weapons both sides could deploy. Additionally, an internal Pentagon Nuclear Posture Review is assessing how many ground-, submarine- and bomber-based nuclear weapons the United States needs.
The last Nuclear Posture Review led to the recent deactivation of 50 of Malmstrom's then-200 missiles — and the loss of about 500 military personnel from the base.
Retired Maj. Gen. Tom Deppe, a former Malmstrom commander, believes a good case can be made to retain the nation's 450 land-based ICBMs at three bases. But he said there also is a chance those numbers could be pared to 400, 300 or even fewer missiles, which he said could mean cuts at all three bases — Malmstrom, F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming and Minot AFB in North Dakota — or even closing one.
Meanwhile, the Montana Air National Guard expects to have its new squadron of F-15s fully operational by early next summer but has already been told by the National Guard Bureau that those planes are scheduled to be shifted to a California Guard base by late 2011. The shift is part of a process to retire approximately 300 "legacy" fighter jets nearly a dozen years early in order to help pay for a smaller number of the ultra-modern F-35 fighters.
Congress might delay or alter the plan, and Montana military and political officials are hoping to retain the F-15s for up to 15 years. If they can't do that, they vow to push for an alternative flying mission that would require about the same number of full- and part-time workers.
Local base boosters, state military officials and Montana's congressional delegation are watching the situation anxiously.
"Of course we have some trepidation and concerns," said longtime Great Falls military booster Warren Wenz, who stressed that he believes the military wants to retain both Malmstrom and the MANG installation on Gore Hill.
Businessman David Weissman, chairman of the new Central Montana Defense Alliance, said local and state officials want to retain all 450 land-based missiles nationwide, "not just for vibrant local economies, but also for a strong national defense."
Similarly, Weissman said it doesn't make business sense to shift the F-15s that will have just settled into Great Falls at a construction expense of $35 million to a California Guard unit that will need to spend additional money on training and construction.
Like Montana Guard officials, Weissman also said he would hate to see the nation stop using the vast, uncluttered training space over central Montana.


December 31, 2009

Otter Creek decision reminiscent of old buffalo hunter By JIM POSEWITZ
I attended the State Land Board Hearing Dec. 21, not to testify, since I had done that in writing, but to watch the political theater around a major decision.
The rationalization that emerged to cause four of the five board members to vote in favor of leasing Otter Creek coal was that somebody was going to supply the coal, so why not us. After all, regulatory safeguards will protect us, there is an export potential to Pacific Rim countries, and we can pick up some big revenue.
It was, however, not possible to view the proceedings solely in the context of Otter Creek coal and the Tongue River Railroad to haul it away. There was more before the board than a simple decision to lease or not to lease coal.
The testimony relative to pollution, climate change, high-sodium coal, ruptured aquifers, tons of carbon emissions, and unsustainability mounted as witnesses presented their views.
The board's carefully crafted responses carried the hearing through the morning. Listening to the board, my mind drifted back to Charles "Buffalo" Jones, a 19th century commercial hide hunter.
Here is what he said:
"Often while hunting these animals as a business, I fully realized the cruelty of slaying the poor creatures. Many times did I 'swear off,' and fully determine I would break my gun over a wagon-wheel when I arrived at camp. ... The next morning I would hear the guns of other hunters booming in all directions and would make up my mind that even if I did not kill any more, the buffalo would soon all be slain just the same."
In the winter of 1882-83 ranch hands of Levi Howe shot the last buffalo on Horse Creek, tributary to Otter Creek. In the summer of 1883 rancher Walt Alderson shot one lonely old bull near Tongue River — the last of millions. This hearing was about the very same landscape — only deeper!
The majority presenting testimony pleaded for the current sustainable ranch economy, the people's fish and wildlife, and a healthy planet.
The commercial boosters were also there to make argument for industrial strength employment and revenue. Both the commercial boosters and the board placed reliance on the Montana regulatory structure to insure temperance.
The fact is, the regulatory structure put in place over 35 years ago, has been severely depleted by legislative erosion and a lack of regulatory resolve. In essence, those very same interest groups who traditionally line up for lowering environmental protection were now offering the regulatory residual as assurance for our future.
Those original protections were put in place in a precious period in Montana history, a time when there were progressive politicians on both side of the political aisle.
That "golden moment" in history was replaced with one where one side of the aisle resembles little more than a population of corporate lemmings, while the other holds all the seats on the board. That expectation of the electorate was a misplaced hope.
As a result, addressing the environmental peril at hand once again falls to the people, who carry the burden of Sisyphus, and to one board member with the courage and wisdom to say "no."
Everyone ignored the real possibility that this buried carbon at rest called coal, may well be burned in China. Current events just concluded in Copenhagen reveal the Chinese diplomats as less than enthusiastic about curbing global contamination.
We can still remember they had to momentarily shut down their industries just to get through the Olympics. Also ignored was a promised Montana ballot issue that will seek to impose a "takings" claim with the potential to either raid state funds or cripple the already compromised regulatory process.
The most refreshing part of the hearing was the testimony of students from Missoula's Big Sky High School. The students presented factual, emotional and inspirational testimony; but, then it is their future on this planet that is at stake.
However, the moment they finished, the board, without pause, began reading carefully prepared motions and statements — statements obviously prepared long before the morning's proceeding.
Positions prepared before the students wrote theirs, before their icy drive from Missoula, and before listening to their emotional but reasoned pleas.
Granted, the board already had substantial input, but still, this was a government body with an educational trust responsibility. They chose to give the students a tough civics lesson in real world politics.
Finally, Jeanie Alderson presented testimony relative to the value of sustainable agriculture and the benefits of non-industrial landscapes.
Her testimony returns the buffalo to the story, since it was her great, great uncle Walt who shot that lonely bull above Tongue River in 1883.
It was her great, great aunt Nannie who clipped the old bull's curly mane to stuff a pillow. The Alderson testimony was a dramatic demonstration of the conservation ethic that emerged and grew strong in our Montana culture, generation upon generation.
It is a land ethic now held at the grassroots level in this state. It is an ethic that deserved better political representation than the single lonely vote of one board member.
For the Montana Land Board it is now the same
next morning experienced by Charles "Buffalo" Jones.
Four of the five could only
hear the guns of other planetary polluters. Only one had the courage to break my gun over a wagon-wheel and stand on principle. Denise Juneau was that person when she voted "no" and told us why.
They are words that warrant repetition: "We cannot vote as if we have blinders on and only see our present economic picture. We must take lessons from the past seven generations and also look forward and provide for the interests of the next seven generations."
She only had one vote, but it keeps hope alive.


December 27, 2009

Energy projects, new businesses were year's highlights By ERIN MADISON Tribune Staff Writer
In a year of gloomy economic news, Great Falls saw many bright spots.
Energy projects — from wind to hydroelectricity — dominated the headlines.
The Electric City saw a variety of new businesses, but also lost a handful of existing ones.
Here's a recap of some of the biggest northcentral Montana business stories that made headlines over the past year.
Rainbow Dam upgrade
PPL Montana broke ground in October on a $230 million project to increase electricity output by 70 percent at Rainbow Dam.
The dam's eight aging turbines will be replaced by a single turbine that will produce about 62 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 45,000 homes. The eight old turbines produce a combined 37 megawatts of power.
Walsh Construction Co., a Chicago-based general contractor, was hired to oversee the project.
The project will take about 30 months to be completed and will employ about 200 people over that time period, according to PPL Montana.
MATL breaks ground
After overcoming legal challenges in Montana and Canada, the 214-mile trans-border Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. transmission line became reality.
MATL's developer estimates the line will prompt $1 billion in wind farm development.
The 300-megawatt Montana Alberta Tie Line, or MATL, will span farmland in northern Montana and southern Alberta between Great Falls and Lethbridge and will connect the electrical grids of the United States at Great Falls and Canada at Lethbridge.
The line will cost $215 million to construct, while creating 150 jobs. If the work goes as scheduled, the line with be "energized" in 2011.
Rocky Mountain Contractors Inc. in Helena, a subsidiary of Bismarck-based MDU Resources Group, was hired as the job's general contractor.
It's been 20 years since a transmission line of this size has been constructed in Montana, according to the project manager.
SME coal-fired plant changed to natural gas
Facing regulatory uncertainty, Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative announced in February that it would shift construction of a controversial coal-fired power plant near Great Falls to the back burner in favor of building a smaller natural gas plant.
The state signed off in October on an air quality permit to build and operate the $210 million natural gas-fired power plant east of Great Falls, but it's still unclear when the developer will begin construction.
The 120-megawatt combined-cycle natural gas-fired power plant, which will have two natural gas-fired combustion turbines, is planned eight miles east of Great Falls. SME also plans to build at least six megawatts worth of wind towers.
The natural gas plant would provide "firming" power for the inconsistent wind energy, said Tim Gregori, CEO of SME.
However, an earlier zoning change of the land where the plant will be constructed is still disputed. It went before the Montana Supreme Court in November. A decision is pending.
Other energy development announcements

In 2005, Montana was producing just 1 megawatt of wind electricity, according to Gov. Brian Schweitzer. As of October, the state was producing 376 megawatts of wind power.

Many wind development announcements occurred in 2009.

Minnesota-based National Wind and Billings-based Montana Wind Resource announced in December plans for a 500-megawatt wind farm to be built near the Judith Gap wind project, which produces 135 megawatts of electricity.

In October, NaturEner USA officials celebrated the completion of the state's largest wind farm south of Ethridge. At 210 megawatts, it's the state's largest wind farm.

"This wind farm is one of the reasons Montana is on the map as a leader in wind energy development," Schweitzer said when he toured the farm.
Before bringing the Glacier Wind Farm online, NaturEner announced plans for a second wind-power facility called Rim Rock, just to the north of the Glacier project. It would be 309 megawatts — 50 percent larger than Glacier.

In May, the state approved the construction of up to 15 wind turbines on 3,080 acres of school-trust land as part of a 300-megawatt wind farm five miles northeast of Martinsdale. Work on the wind farm is scheduled to begin next year and will include seven to 15 turbines on state land plus additional turbines on private land, mainly on the Martinsdale Hutterite Colony.

State officials also approved late this year a 79-megawatt wind power project on private and state-owned land in central Montana. The Coyote Wind Project will include eight wind turbines that can generate up to 14.4 megawatts of electricity on state land and 36 turbines generating 64.8 megawatts on adjacent private land.

Other energy business developments announced in 2009 include:

Canadian and Irish companies, Tonbridge Power Inc. and Gaelectric, announced plans in November to build a 100-mile-long power line in Montana that could prompt construction of wind farms in the Great Falls area by giving developers access to large out-of-state markets hungry for renewable energy.

Energy West completed a reorganization to create a holding company structure, which will allow the company more flexibility to expand, but will protect utility customers from the exposure such business activities could create. Energy West is now a subsidiary of the holding company Energy Inc. Energy West will continue to be based in Great Falls.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved in August an air quality permit allowing for a 128-megawatt expansion of a previously permitted 262-megawatt natural gas plant planned north of Great Falls. The owner of the project, Montgomery Energy, plans to build the two facilities side by side on a site two miles north of Great Falls and east of U.S. Highway 87. The natural gas-fired plant will generate electricity to be sold as balancing power for intermittent wind generation.

New ventures
A variety of new businesses opened their doors in 2009. A dozen restaurants entered the Great Falls scene:

New owners spruced up and reopened the Old Skyline Bar on Gore Hill in March.

Cold Stone Creamery, serving mixed-up ice cream creations, opened in Marketplace in August.

Marketplace also saw the addition of Pizza Hut in March.

Salad Creations opened on 10th Avenue South.

On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina, owned by Shoot the Moon LLC, opened in Marketplace in the former home of Tony Roma's last summer.

Sonic Drive-In opened in July to lines of cars so long they were directed to wait in a nearby "staging area."

The Downtown Dog House began offering unique hotdog creations and later opened the Uptown Dog House, now located inside the Brick.

Hot dogs are the new thing in Great Falls. Stinky's Hellacious Hot Dogs also opened inside Reno Casino.

Jimmy John's started selling gourmet sandwiches on fresh-baked bread in November.

Suki Cafe offers sushi, Thai and Japanese dishes.

Pegasus Blu opened in Times Square in September, offering a gluten-free menu.

Pizza lovers were happy to hear Great Falls is once again home to Little Caesars Pizza, which opened in November in the Target shopping center.

Other businesses, from hotels to shoe stores, that opened in 2009 include:

Blinds-N-All, custom blind and drapery business at 310 Central Ave. W.

Staybridge Suites, an extended-stay hotel on the West Bank.

Nine Months and Co., a new and used baby and maternity store downtown.

Aunya's Belly Dance studio and Bedlah & Bauble Boutique, a belly dance studio and belly dance apparel and accessory boutique opened in the old Washington School building.

Midway Rental, which rents equipment for homeowners and construction, opened a location in Great Falls, its fourth in the state.

Planet Beach, on the Northwest Bypass, offers automated spa treatments for everything from massage and spray tans to facials and teeth whitening.

Pella Windows and Doors opened at 900 6th St. S.W.

Sole.Mate opened on Central Avenue in the former Cool Beans location selling shoes, purses and perfumes.

A few closures
A handful of businesses closed over the past year:

Waldenbooks, in the Holiday Village Mall since 1986, closed its doors in January.

AirTEL Wireless left customers and employees high and dry when it unexpectedly shut down its service in February.

The Finishing Touch, a custom window covering and furniture business at 617 Central Ave., shut its doors after 31 years in business.

S&L Bounce, which operated inflatable play equipment in Holiday Village Mall, closed after an unsuccessful attempt to sell the business

Pin & Cue, the west side bowling alley and bar shut its doors this summer.

Zandy's Drive-In closed its doors in January, but re-opened under new management in February before shutting down again this fall.

Red Wing Shoe Store, on 13th Street South, closed its doors after 40 years in business.

The recession hits home, but not as hard as some areas

The current recession is the worst the state has seen the 1980s, but Cascade County is one of the areas in Montana least effected by it, said economist Paul Polzin, while presenting his midyear economic outlook in Great Falls.
Cascade County has a steady economic base, he said. More than half of the county's economy is made up of military and federal civilian employment, which stayed steady through the recession and was boosted by the federal stimulus bill.
Cascade County did see unemployment increase, but not as much as other areas of the state.
In November, the unemployment rate in Cascade County was 5.5 percent, compared with 4.3 percent in November 2008. Montana's unemployment rate was 6.4 percent in November 2009. Nationwide that number was 10 percent.
Great Falls did see a small increase in foreclosure rates.
The rate of foreclosures among outstanding mortgage loans was 1.09 percent in Great Falls in August, an increase of 0.48 percentage points compared to August of 2008 when the rate was 0.62 percent. Foreclosure activity in Great Falls was lower than the national foreclosure rate which was 2.86 percent for August, a 1.77 percentage point difference from the previous year.
Overall, Great Falls finished the year in construction ahead of 2008 in terms of building permit values.
However, most of that was on the commercial construction side. Residential building permits were down about 25 percent in 2009 compared with 2008. Last year permits were down about 47 percent from a record high in 2007.
Commercial permits totaled $45 million through for 2009 through November. That's about $8 million more than in 2008.
Major commercial construction projects included:

Orthopedic Center of Montana, $13.4 million.

Staybridge Suites, $9 million.

The second phase of Taxiway Alpha reconstruction project at Great Falls International Airport, $6 million.

Holiday Inn Express, $3 million.

Airport car wash, $1.2 million.

Sonic Drive-In, $900,000.

Golden Corral Restaurant, $825,000.

Government stimulus in Great Falls
Great Falls auto dealers got a boost this summer with the federal Cash for Clunkers program.
"We did very well in late July and August, with business spiking not only for new cars, but also for used vehicles once customers got on the lot," said David Krebs, general sales manager of Bennett Motors.
The program allowed customers to trade old, less-fuel efficient vehicles in for newer cars that get better gas mileage, receiving up to $4,500 in the exchange.
Great Falls also felt the positive effects of the first-time homebuyer tax credit that offered $8,000 to new homeowners.
Earlier this month, the state announced tax credits on Energy Star appliances. Those credits won't go into effect until spring 2010.
Russell Museum, Ad Club part ways
News unfolded this fall that after four decades, the C.M. Russell Museum and the Great Falls Advertising Federation, which puts on the annual C.M. Russell Art Auction, will part ways.
In the past, the Ad Club has donated a portion of the auction's proceeds to the museum.
The museum announced plans to hold it own auction to be called, "The Russell: The Sale to Benefit the C.M. Russell Museum."
The Ad Club will continue to host the C.M. Russell Art Auction and will donate proceeds to other organizations.
Benefis considers Clinic acquisition
Benefis Health System and the Great Falls Clinic confirmed in September that the two organizations are talking about a possible acquisition of the Clinic by Benefis.
Shortly after, the two health care organizations announced that they had entered into exclusive talks to last 90 days. Those discussions are set to end this week.
In the past year, 34 physicians and advance practice professionals have left the Clinic. Many of those moved to Benefis.
Military changes
Malmstrom Air Force Base didn't land the new Global Strike Command mission.
The Air Force announced in April that it chose Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to house the new command mission that will manage its nuclear arsenal.
Malmstrom Air Force Base was among six bases considered for the mission.
Tentative plans were also announced to transfer the Montana Air National Guard's F-15 jets to a base in California in a few years.
Groups are lobbying to keep the jets here. If that doesn't happen, their next goal will be to retain other flying missions, such as Blackhawk helicopters, said Brig. Gen. John Walsh, the adjutant general of the Department of Military Affairs in Montana.
No final decisions about the possible change have been made, Walsh said.

Anniversary of TVA Coal Ash Spill as Forgotten as the Disaster Itself
by: Glynn Wilson, t r u t h o u t | Report
On the third day before Christmas in 2008, the people living along the Emory River in East Tennessee were listening to songs about a "white Christmas" like everybody else in the country, trying to look forward and not back. A new president was in the White House who promised "hope" after eight years of war and unprecedented corruption, as well as the increasing economic hardship that was squeezing the middle class like a juggernaut.
Instead of a white Christmas, though, people like Steve Scarborough of the Dagger Kayak and Canoe Company woke up to a black-gray mess of epic proportions, a river full of toxic coal ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal-fired power plant at Kingston, Tennessee.
"There are no excuses for this," Scarborough said. "One of the dumbest thing humans do is dig coal out of the ground and burn it."
The largely affluent population of the area demanded action and an immediate cleanup of the largest environmental disaster in American history in the lower 48 states, second only to the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in the spring of 1989. So within four months, by
March 20, TVA began dredging the mountain of coal ash out of the river and shipping it by train to a landfill in the poor Black Belt of Alabama.
One year later, on the first anniversary of the second worst environmental disaster in American history, while the people in Tennessee are hiring lawyers and suing TVA and reading story after story in the local newspapers about their plight while the cleanup continues, the poor people of Perry County, Alabama, where TVA found a place to dump the toxic ash, are not singing Christmas carols. They are locked in their homes with their air conditioners running even in winter, trying to stay out of the gaseous fumes from the landfill where the coal ash is piling up on top of household garbage by the freight train load.
There's not a newspaper or a TV station anywhere around telling their story, and most of them are so poor and living in such a remote, rural area that they can't even turn to the Internet, either to voice their concerns and get organized or find out what's going on to help them, if there is anything. They are not hearing much out of their local government officials or the congressman elected to represent them either, so they are living in the dark with a nagging fear for the future.
North of the landfill, other residents with nowhere to go to escape the gaseous smell from the liquid waste being dumped from the landfill into a nearby lagoon, are hooked up to oxygen tanks and wondering where in the world the birds have gone.
There's not even an organized environmental group to help them within a hundred miles, so their cause has fallen to John Wathen, the Hurricane Creekkeeper in Tuscaloosa to the north, who has been making the trip down periodically to monitor the water and document what is clearly an environmental justice situation with major ecological and sociological implications.
"TVA officials want you to believe the 1.1-billion-gallon coal ash spill at their Kingston plant was due to an 'act of God,'" Wathen says. ‚"And now Perry County Commissioner Albert Turner Jr. calls receiving the toxic ash a 'godsend.'"
County commissioners and even the congressman from the district who wants to be Alabama's first black governor, Artur Davis, have done nothing to represent the poor people who are living with the coal ash in their air and water. In fact, they have said the money being pumped into the county coffers from landfill tipping fees is providing much-needed revenue to one of the poorest counties in the country.
According to Wathen, however, "The truth is that this toxic disaster is neither an act of God or a godsend." It is a nightmare before Christmas.
"While his constituents are complaining of malodorous gases and respiratory problems, Turner is issuing a clarion call to bring more toxic waste to Perry County - and with it $3.5 million for the county government," Wathen says. "The truth is that nothing says clean coal like dirty money."
The disaster that ruined the Emory River was 100 percent manmade, the result of a lax regulatory structure where the waste from coal-fired power plants was not managed at all. TVA, Southern Company and other power companies have been piling the ash up for years alongside rivers and streams, even getting rid of some of it by
encouraging farmers to dump it on their land.
That practice has all but stopped now, however. When the makeshift retaining wall failed in Kingston, sending out a mountain of ash to fill up a six-mile stretch of one of the most pristine rivers in the Southeastern US like a giant volcanic lava flow, it was a wakeup call to federal regulators. Although to date, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has taken no steps to classify coal ash in any regulated category.
According to environmental lawyer David Ludder, who has filed documents indicating an intent to sue the Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County if something is not done to contain the air and water pollution from impacting the health of nearby residents, there is a problem with regulating coal ash as hazardous waste.
If the EPA were to declare tomorrow that the waste should be disposed of in a hazardous waste landfill, that could stop the shipments from the Tennessee and potentially halt the massive cleanup itself. So Ludder believes the EPA will at some point classify the ash as solid waste, "due to the widespread impact of the cost."
Even if that is the result, landfills that accept the waste must still manage the liquid waste in a responsible manner, which is obviously not being done in Marion, Alabama.
Contractors hired by TVA to dredge the Emory River are loading as much as 30 percent water in the plastic-lined train cars. Some experts say transporting the ash wet is better than moving it dry, which would just cause the toxic substances in the waste to get airborne and affect even more people.
What to do with the liquid is seriously problematic. Since a stink was raised about the liquid waste a few weeks ago, shipments of the co-called "leachate" have stopped going to a nearby lagoon sewer system that is already overrun with waste from a local cheese factory. Landfill company managers and county officials are trying to negotiate deals for other sewer systems in nearby communities such as Demopolis to take the liquid, but there are concerns about lawsuits, so neighboring communities are reluctant to get involved.
Since the lagoon controversy was uncovered and reported on by
The Locust Fork News-Journal, an alternative, independent news web site, Wathen has taken photographs at night showing landfill workers pumping liquid runoff from the landfill into contiguous ditches and even onto the road in front of peoples' houses. It is at night and when trucks dump their loads that people say the odor is the worst.
Ruby Holmes, 80, has lived here all her life. She said when she tries to sleep with her window cracked, "This odor wakes me up at night." When asked to describe the odor, she says, "It smells like some kind of gas. It gets all through my house and smells like rotten eggs. I'm very concerned about my health. I'm breathing this stuff. It's going into my lungs."
Ms. Holmes used to grow a garden on the rich land of the Black Belt, but recently she has given up the practice.
She has seen buzzards coming from the landfill "pooping" in her garden, so she is reluctant to eat the vegetables. She didn't even plant a garden this year. She has also noticed a bad smell in her well water - "an old smell like it has been sitting there for a long time," she said.
She has lived in the same place her entire life and used to enjoy a cup of coffee on the front porch in the morning. Now, she says, it is "not much of a life at all. Nobody listens."
Jackie Fike, who lives near the treatment plant and lagoon where some of the wastewater from the landfill is being dumped and whose wife is now forced to stay inside on oxygen most of the time, said he used to see a lot of birds around.
"We hardly have a bird now,‚" he said. "This stuff is about to kill a lot of fish, a lot of people."
According to Ludder and Wathen, who has test results from water samples to back it up, the coal ash contains numerous toxic, radioactive and carcinogenic compounds such as arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, thorium and uranium. The cancer risk to elderly folks and children who drink water contaminated with arsenic from coal combustion waste is 900 times higher than EPA's recommended level of risk.
"The unfortunate thing all around is that the government that was supposed to protect the people, once again, is not doing it,‚" Ludder said. "And the people have to face the consequences."
Since the disaster one year ago, the Kingston "disaster ash," as it is known here, "has spread like a cancer across the Southeast," Wathen says. "It has now come into contact with eight river systems."
That includes the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee Rivers, which run into the Mississippi. The waste is shipped to Perry County, where the Arrowhead Landfill drains to the Alabama River, then to the Tombigbee River. Leachate created by the wet ash is trucked to Marion, Alabama, where it was discharged into Rice Creek and other streams that flow into the Cahaba River. Now, since some of the liquid is being trucked to Demopolis, it too ends up being discharged into the Tombigbee River, which ends up flowing into the Mobile River.
"Just like the cancer it carries with it," Wathen says, "this ash has impacted people in places who have never heard of Kingston, Tennessee, destroying their quality of life and peace of mind."

December 21, 2009

Land board OKs vast coal development The Associated Press
HELENA — Montana's top elected officials backed a plan Monday to put vast tracts of coal up for lease, bucking pressure from environmentalists who say digging up and burning the fuel will be an ``abomination'' that endangers the planet.
The Montana Land Board said it will demand top dollar for the coal and expects private companies to place bids on the massive project within the next couple of months. Observers said the state may be asking too much.
The decision comes shortly after a private company that owns intertwined tracts leased its rights to Arch Coal Inc. of St. Louis. The Land Board said it wants two-and-half times as much for an upfront bonus than Great Northern Properties received.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who made the motion, says a $143 million ``bonus bid'' ensures that the state isn't selling the coal so cheap that it simply subsidies the construction of the Tongue River Railroad — which is needed for Otter Creek but some worry could be used to ship competing Wyoming coal. It also ensures the state some money whether or not the coal is eventually developed. McCulloch promised critics that the Land Board will require further approval of development and reclamation plans, and noted it would also have to go through the Montana environmental regulatory process. ``Every step will be carefully and publicly considered,'' she said. ``No sweetheart deal will be made with any coal developers.'' Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Attorney General Steve Bullock and State Auditor Monica Lindeen also voted in favor of putting the coal up for lease. School Superintendent Denise Juneau voted no. Juneau argued that the board's fiduciary duty to generate money for schools with state land must look far down the road, long after the coal is gone and its potentially costly effects remain. ``It's time for us to be visionary,'' she argued. ``There is also value in keeping Montana as Montana.'' The four supporters, all Democrats, bucked a key constituency: Environmentalists rallied against the plan before the debate with chants of ``no coal!'' and pleaded during public comment that the board should shoot down the idea. They pointed out that burning the coal would release an estimated 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases and noted the costly legacy of various Superfund sites in the state leftover from mining operations. The opponents pointed out that the Democrats on the board promised environmental stewardship when they were running for office. Schweitzer told the crowd he believes global warming is a real threat but said it's not realistic for Montana alone to stop developing its natural resources. Business interests and rural towns in the area have been pushing for development of the coal. ``We need every opportunity we can get,'' said Cameron Lundby, with a Miles City construction company. ``Each year it becomes harder to justify keeping our headquarters in Montana,'' Lundby said. ``Our citizens need good-paying jobs, and our state needs revenue.'' The board will find out in the next couple months if any coal companies are willing to pay what the state is seeking, given the huge upfront development costs for starting a new mine. ``This kind of a minimum bid — for an undeveloped tract of this magnitude — is kind of out of the ballpark,'' said Bud Clinch with the Montana Coal Council. That minimum bid of 25 cents per ton — which Bullock sought to increase to 35 cents — will be the focus. ``We will see if anyone bids at that level,'' said Leo Berry, a Helena attorney representing Great Northern Properties. ``If they do, Land Board hit a home run. If they don't, then we're back to square one.'' Arch coal has said it could move forward with development without the state. Many observers say that's unlikely because the coal rights are divided in a checkerboard fashion that requires joint development. An appraisal done for the state earlier this year estimated infrastructure development costs of roughly $1 billion. That included about $200 million to construct the Tongue River Railroad, the new rail line. The appraisal, by Norwest Corp. of Salt Lake City, said the railroad alone would bump up the price for the coal by roughly 15 cents per ton. The railroad has been bitterly fought by some ranchers and southeastern Montana land owners who say it will industrialize the rural Tongue River Valley. Among the opponents is billionaire Forrest Mars, Jr., former chief executive of Mars, Inc., the family owned candy empire based in McLean, Va.

Press Releases
December 16, 2009

Delegation Applauds Announcement of New Airmen, Expanded Mission at Grand Forks Air Force Base
Growing UAV Presence Will Bring 180 Additional Personnel to Base Next Year

Washington – Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Congressman Earl Pomeroy today applauded the announcement that the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) mission at Grand Forks Air Force Base will be expanded, bringing 180 additional airmen to North Dakota next year.
“This is very good news for Grand Forks and the state of North Dakota,” the delegation said in a joint statement. “The UAV operation based in Grand Forks is at the cutting edge of our nation's defense. As the airmen in Grand Forks continue their excellent performance, we continue to make the case for new and expanded missions in Grand Forks, including the next generation of air refueling tankers.”
The Secretary of the Air Force, Mike Donley, called North Dakota’s Congressional Delegation Wednesday afternoon to deliver the news. Secretary Donley announced that Grand Forks Air Force Base will receive Global Hawk Block 20 ground elements. The newly-assigned mission will enable personnel in Grand Forks to operate Global Hawks equipped with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN), which turns the UAVs into long-range communications relay platforms. When BACN equipment is installed on the Global Hawk, it can provide almost round-the-clock radio communications over a battlefield from an altitude of 40,000 feet and greatly improve the capacity to provide our troops with real-time battlefield information and secure ground communications in mountainous terrain such as Afghanistan.
The delegation said the mission will bring 180 additional personnel to Grand Forks next year to help minimize the impact at the base caused by the departure of personnel following the downsizing of the base's air refueling tankers. Last month the delegation held the latest in a series of meetings with Air Force leadership to make the case for expanding the UAV mission at Grand Forks. Eventually, Grand Forks will be the home of the Air Force’s entire fleet of Global Hawk Block 40s, the newest version of the Global Hawk.

Fear of violence grows in mountaintop mining fight
By VICKI SMITH, Associated Press Writer
Sat Dec 19, 9:30 pm ET

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It was the slap heard 'round the coalfields: Cordelia Ruth Tucker, wearing the fluorescent-striped shirt of a miner, strode past West Virginia state troopers and into a stream of marchers protesting mountaintop removal mining to deliver an audible smack.
The 54-year-old Rock Creek woman isn't talking as she awaits trial on a battery charge. Her neighbor, environmental activist Judy Bonds, says she was on the receiving end of the slap.
And Bonds — like many in a place where labor disputes have a violent history — fears more blows will follow as the fight escalates over mountaintop removal, the uniquely Appalachian form of strip mining that involves blowing tops off mountains and dumping the rubble in valleys.
For nearly a decade, environmentalists and the mining industry battled in courtrooms and the Capitol. Arrests were unheard of.
This year, as mountaintop removal has drawn more scrutiny from regulators, policy makers and the public, the activists' strategy changed.
There have been nearly 100 arrests in 20 protests, most involving trespassing. Led by a new group called Climate Ground Zero, the activists have chained themselves to giant dump trucks, scaled 80-foot trees to stop blasting and paddled into a 9 million-gallon sludge pond. They've blocked roads, hung banners and staged sit-ins.
Virginia-based Massey Energy claims a single 3 1/2-hour occupation at Progress Coal Co. in Twilight cost the company $300,000. Two environmentalists pleaded no contest to battery after that incident for trying to push past a miner and climb a 20-story, earth-moving crane.
Mountaintop removal foes say the industry and its allies are stoking fear and anger among miners and their friends by accusing environmentalists, Congress and the Obama administration of trying to kill coal through regulation and permitting.
Massey equates anti-coal with anti-American. Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy blames the planned layoffs of 482 miners on a lawsuit by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
Both sides are fighting for a way of life. The miners see the mountains as their livelihood. The environmentalists see them as divine and irreplaceable creations.
Since that slap in June, conflict has manifested itself mainly in harsh words and shows of force: Shout-downs by hundreds of miners at an Army Corps of Engineers hearing; a bare-bellied miner's profane, throat-slitting gesture at a picnic for environmentalists on Kayford Mountain; a curse-laden online tirade in which someone using the screen name "Superhippieslayer" warns, "Look out violence is coming your way. There is a group ready as we speak to eliminate the threat."
The bitter feelings bubble up in comments posted on YouTube video links to incidents like the June 23 protest march where Bonds was slapped. Hundreds of comments were posted after she spoke at a Dec. 7 rally in Charleston, many laced with profanities.
It's to the point where Bonds, a diminutive 57-year-old, has installed home-security cameras, carries a handgun and checks her car for dangling bomb wires.
"I feel a sense of dread," she said. "You're taking your life in your hands if they know who you are."
Lorelei Scarbro, an activist with Coal River Mountain Watch, said the industry provokes the miners as it demonizes the environmentalists.
"It's not the working man that's the problem here," Scarbro said. "It's the industry and the way they continue to use and exploit people on both sides of the issue, whether it's the working man trying to take care of his family or the environmentalist trying to take care of us all."
Environmentalists use words like "corrupt," "greedy" and "thugs" to describe the pro-coal establishment. Industry counters with words like "hippies," "extremists" and "terrorists."
The West Virginia Coal Association dismisses much of the inflammatory language as harmless rhetoric, to be expected when jobs are on the line.
"We absolutely don't condone people who use threats, intimidation and general thuggism," said senior vice president Chris Hamilton. However, "from our standpoint, it's more difficult to engage in constructive discussion with someone who has as their primary objective to shut the industry down."
Neither side is backing down.
"People are not going to just roll over and let their livelihood be regulated out of business," said Beckley coal truck supplier Carl Hubbard, who bemoaned "limp-wristed greeniacs" in a recent newspaper column. "God put that coal here for us to mine, in my view."
There have been pleas to tone things down.
In July, after the South Charleston Museum board of directors canceled the premiere of the film "Coal Country" over unspecified security concerns, the West Virginia Council of Churches begged both sides to respect the rights of lawful assembly and free speech.
Months later, executive director Dennis Sparks is still waiting: "There's not a day goes by that we don't lift it up in prayer."
Politicians and power brokers have generally responded by inciting or standing indifferent. Take state Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin: "The Lord didn't create many things without a purpose. But mosquitoes and the EPA come close, I think."
U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd recently became an important exception, rebuking the industry.
"The most important factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal," he said. "Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counterproductive."
Elsewhere, rhetoric might be dismissed as just that, but the coalfields have a bloody history.
In 1920, a shootout between unionizing miners and coal company security guards left 12 men dead on the streets of Matewan, W.Va. The 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, an armed union uprising, eventually required the intervention of federal troops. During a union strike in the 1980s, car windows were smashed and shots were fired.
"But this is different," said William Kovarik, an associate professor at Radford University in Virginia who studies and teaches the history of environmental movements worldwide.
Now the conflict is between miners and people within their own communities.
"Union and nonunion workers are being told by management that their livelihoods are at great risk from out-of-state environmentalists," Kovarik said. "Management is going out of its way to equate them with terrorists, when in reality, they are their own neighbors, grandparents, retired coal miners and college students."
And dehumanizing your opponent, Kovarik said, can open the door to real violence.
Activist Chuck Nelson, a former underground miner from Glen Daniel, said the longer surface miners face uncertainty, the more the danger grows: The federal government must act soon, one way or the other.
And if the EPA comes down on the environmentalists' side?
"Well," Nelson said, "there's a possibility it might not be safe to live in the Coal River Valley."

December 17, 2009

Moves by outgoing City Commission questioned By RICHARD ECKE Tribune Staff Writer
Departing Great Falls city commissioners fired a parting salvo at critics and two incoming City Commission members during Tuesday night's regular commission meeting.
Commissioners voted 4-1, with Mary Jolley opposed, to reappoint Lee Ebeling and George Golie to six-year terms on the Electric City Power Board.
The city's power utility advisory board has been among its most criticized boards, although members contend many of the complaints are unfounded. Electric City Power lost money in 2006, 2007 and 2008, before the city began to turn an operating profit earlier this year, according to city fiscal officer Coleen Balzarini.
Tuesday night marked the last regular City Commission meeting for Mayor Dona Stebbins, and Commissioners Bill Beecher and John Rosenbaum, all of whom supported the city's energy ventures, including the creation of its power utility. The three outgoing commission members were joined by sitting Commissioner Bill Bronson, who also has supported city energy efforts. Bronson, whose seat was not up for election in November, will be a member of the new commission seated in January.
At the meeting Tuesday night, incoming commission members Fred Burow and Mayor Michael Winters, along with other members of the audience, urged the commission to delay a decision on the power board appointments until next month, when the three new City Commission members — including the new mayor — are seated. Winters, Burow and Commissioner-Elect Bob Jones will be sworn in at noon Jan. 4.
Winters and Commissioner-Elect Fred Burow expressed skepticism about the city's energy venture during the election campaign.
Jones did not join in their Tuesday request to delay the appointments.
Winters on Wednesday expressed disappointment that the commission did not honor the request for a delay made during the meeting.
Winters called Bronson's argument that commissioners wanted to make sure the city made its appointments so boards could conduct their business in January "bogus." Winters said that had the appointments not been made, the power board still would have had a quorum of three members to conduct business.
Burow noted that a recent consultants' study recommended the power board be reduced from five members to three members, and the commission's vote Tuesday might complicate such a decision.
"If we decide to get down to three, who do we get rid of?" Burow asked.
Bronson said Wednesday that the new commission would be able to come up with a system to handle that.
The two future commission members also took some offense at Bronson's comments at the meeting. Bronson said he thought the City Commission was perfectly capable of making the decision this week, and that the commission needed to fill the vacancies.
Winters said he thought Bronson sounded as if he was "talking down" to his future colleagues.
Burow added that Bronson "seemed rather upset." He also said there was never any question that the sitting commission was qualified to make the selections.
"I guess I didn't see the urgency to fill the positions," Burow said.
Winters also said that the six-year terms for the power board are much longer than any city elected officials receive, allowing outgoing commission members to make appointments with long-term impacts on city government.
At a recent City Commission agenda-setting meeting, sitting commissioners expressed no reservations about making any of the board appointments.
"These terms expire as of Dec. 31," Bronson said at that meeting. "I'd say we go ahead and do it."
Stebbins agreed with Bronson during the meeting, and reaffirmed her view Wednesday.
"Both of them (Burow and Winters) failed to realize that as long as we hold office, we still have a responsibility to do what we feel is right for the city of Great Falls," Stebbins said.
Bronson said Wednesday that he believes the city's advisory boards should be kept as full as possible. He denied stacking the power board with certain views, noting the City Commission makes the ultimate decisions — not the advisory board.
Bronson also suggested that if Bronson and Winters have a beef with him, they should talk to him about it.
"It's interesting that neither of them have bothered to contact me personally," Bronson said.
He also said that neither Bronson nor Winters offered a compelling reason for a delay.
Bronson said Winters offered a "strong comment" to commissioners at the meeting.
"I'm sorry that these two feel that they're offended," Bronson said. "I think everybody just needs to get used to each other."
Additional Facts
Coming up

City Commissioners-elect Fred Burow and Bob Jones and incoming Mayor Michael Winters will be sworn into office at noon Jan. 4 by state District Judge Dirk Sandefur in the City Commission Chambers. The public is invited to attend the brief ceremony. The next City Commission meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.

GE to provide turbines for big wind farm
By Julie Schmit

The largest wind farm proposed in the U.S. will be built in Oregon and provide enough power for 235,000 homes and use $1.4 billion in turbines and services from GE, the companies said Thursday.

When completed in 2012, the $2 billion Shepherds Flat wind farm will be larger than any wind farm in operation worldwide, GE says.

Now, the largest operating wind farm in the world is the 781-megawatt farm near Roscoe, Texas, the American Wind Energy Association says. The Oregon farm is planned to cover 30 square miles and produce 845 megawatts of power.

Wind farms have ratcheted up in size in recent years as developers seek economies of scale, says Vic Abate, GE vice president of renewables.

The larger projects also underscore the rapid rise of wind-generated power in the U.S. In the past two years, 40% of new electricity added to the grid came from wind, Abate says. Wind generates about 2% of the nation's electricity.

It's growing abroad, too. Earlier this year, a 1,000-megawatt offshore wind farm was announced that's expected to supply power to a quarter of the homes in the greater London area. That first phase of the project is also expected to be completed in 2012 and will be 630 megawatts, the developers have said. The second phase would take it to 1,000 megawatts.

Oregon ranks fifth among states in existing wind projects, following Texas, Iowa, California and Minnesota, the American Wind Energy Association says. Oregon has been aggressively pursuing renewable-energy firms with a 50% tax credit to offset capital costs.

Although in Oregon, the Shepherds Flat farm will supply energy to California's Southern California Edison utility, which must secure 33% of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

The Shepherds Flat farm is being built by New York-based Caithness Energy. Construction will begin next year. In addition to supplying 338 wind turbines, GE will provide 10 years of operational and maintenance services to the project.

The farm, to be constructed in north-central Oregon in Gilliam and Morrow counties, will employ 400 workers during construction and 35 during operation, Caithness Energy says. It's received the majority of the permits it needs, the companies say. Gilliam County has 1,850 people, County Judge Pat Shaw says. "This is a big thing," she says.

December 9, 2009

Groups: Leave coal tracts untouched By JOHN S. ADAMS Tribune Capitol Bureau
HELENA — On the same day that leaders from more than 100 countries gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark, to hash out a plan for reducing greenhouse gases and stemming climate change, environmental groups met with two members of the state Land Board and urged them to leave Otter Creek coal in the ground.
Joined by University of Montana climate scientist and Nobel laureate Steve Running and by UM economics professor Tom Power, officials for four Montana environmental groups told Attorney General Steve Bullock and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau that it is unwise for the state to lease rights to the estimated 600 million tons of coal in the state-owned Otter Creek coal tracts.
"Decisions like Otter Creek are the underpinnings of what is going on in Copenhagen right now," said Anne Hedges, program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center. "Copenhagen is about world leaders trying to solve the climate crisis, and coal is an enormous piece of that puzzle. We cannot solve the climate crisis unless we solve the problem of burning coal, in Montana and worldwide."
According to the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of which Running is a member, emissions from coal-fired power plants account for more than 20 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions.
The state Land Board, which is comprised of the state's five top statewide elected officeholders, is scheduled to decide whether to put the Otter Creek tracts south of Ashland up for bid at its Dec. 21 meeting. Arch Coal, one of the nation's largest coal developers, has bid on the Otter Creek coal owned by Great Northern Properties.
Pro-coal interests say the huge Otter Creek coal deposits could supply new power plants with a cheap source of fuel while giving a boost to Montana's economy.
But Running said the costs of developing the coal would be too great to justify the short-term benefit the state would receive.
"Putting a billion tons of coal into the atmosphere is the kind of disaster that we have to start turning around all over the world," Running said.
Running said Montana is already suffering from the effects of a warming atmosphere. He said the average yearly temperatures in the state have risen several degrees since the 1950s, leading to disappearing glaciers, reduced snow packs and stream flows, and increased drought. He said if humans continue to emit carbon dioxide at their current pace, by the end of the century Montana will see its winter snowpack completely melted off by April 1.
"To me the biggest issue in climate change for Montana is all about our water balance," Running said. "If it's five degrees warmer, even by 2050, and we're getting less rainfall, then we are just aridifying our landscape."
Power, who has studied Montana's economy for more than 30 years, appealed to Bullock and Juneau from an economic standpoint. Development of the Otter Creek tracts could have unintended consequences for the state's existing coal industry, he said.
Montana coal is higher in sodium content than Wyoming coal, Power said, which limits the number of coal-burning power plants that can use it to generate electricity. Most of those plants are in the upper Midwest, Power said. The proposed Tongue River Railroad, which would have to be built in order to move the coal from the Otter Creek tracts, would open Montana's relatively small coal market to larger competitors in Wyoming.
"Our market is the Rust Belt and Wyoming's market ... is the Sun Belt and the more rapidly growing parts of the country. That's why Wyoming's coal sales have boomed and ours have been relatively limited," Power said.
Power said if the Tongue River railroad is built, it will give Wyoming a shortcut to Montana's coal market, thus negating any economic benefit Montana might receive from the development of the Otter Creek tracts.
But the overall message during Tuesday's meeting centered on the significance the board's decision could have on global climate change.
Running, who just returned from Copenhagen where he was preparing for the historic two-week global summit, said the Land Board's decision will have lasting impacts on the future of climate.
"Are we going to burn another billion tons of coal or aren't we? That's where all this global theory comes back down to this kind of decision making," Running said. "To me this is where theory meets reality: this kind of a decision for this coal lease right here."
Neither Juneau nor Bullock indicated how they intend to vote on the lease proposal.
"It's a difficult and multifaceted question, and we're still working through it and trying to figure out what's best for the school trusts and Montana," Bullock said after the meeting.
The Land Board is accepting public comment on Otter Creek lease proposal through Dec. 18. Contact Lucy Richards,, if you wish to submit written comments to the board members prior to the Dec. 21 meeting.


December 8, 2009

DEQ will propose CO2 emission limits Environmental group hails EPA ruling; industry fears heavy cost By KARL PUCKETT Tribune Staff Writer
A Montana environmental group that unsuccessfully pressed the state last year to reg­ulate carbon dioxide emissions from a proposed power plant near Great Falls welcomed an EPA announcement Monday that the greenhouse gas is now con­sidered a health threat.
“This now moves the permitting process in the direction that we always thought it should have been,” said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environ­mental Information Cen­ter.
On Monday, the Envi­ronmental Protection Agency ruled that greenhouse gases threaten public health, giv­ing the Obama administration power to regulate smokestack and tailpipe emissions that feed global warming.
In response to the direction the EPA is tak­ing on CO2, the state Department of Environ­mental Quality will pro­pose to the state Board of Environmental Review on Friday a new rule setting carbon diox­ide emissions limits for the first time in Montana.
The EPA has yet to require emissions limits, but it’s a matter of when — not if — the DEQ’s Charles Homer said.
The DEQ will propose that the BER adopt the EPA-recommend­ed threshold of 25,000 tons per year, meaning a facility that emits at least 25,000 tons of CO2 annu­ally would need to regulate emis­sions. The coal-fired power plant east of Great Falls, which is no longer being planned, would have emit­ted an estimated 2.4 million tons of CO2. “It’s requiring us to consider alternatives to the dirty energy we used in the past,” Hedges said. Bud Clinch of the Montana Coal Council, which includes the state’s major coal mine operators, said the group would be watching the proposed changes closely because the state produces 44 million tons of coal a year and ships two-thirds to power plants out of state. “Depending on the magnitude of rules that are promulgated, it could have a significant impact on consumers of Montana coal and ultimately production in Montana as well as the associated jobs and revenue that go with that,” he said. The mining industry employs 1,000 people in the state. The average salary is $72,000, Clinch said. Last year, MEIC appealed the air permit for Highwood Generat­ing Station, arguing that the DEQ should require CO2 emissions limits. The BER refused, saying that carbon dioxide was not at the time considered by the federal government to be a pollutant. MEIC later sued in district court but the point became moot after Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative withdrew its air per­mit for the project, deciding to build a gas-fired power plant instead. Natural gas plants emit CO2 as well and could be regulated along with any industry that produces the greenhouse gases including cement plants, Hedges said. SME is now planning to build a natural gas facility, but it already has an air permit for that project. The gas plant would emit an estimated 250,000 tons of CO2 annually. Under the anticipated changes, companies that emit greenhouse gas emissions will have to consid­er technologies to reduce the emissions, Hedges said. Hedges said the new rules would only affect new facilities or perhaps major modifications to existing facilities. MEIC challenged the High­wood project and a facility by Roundup. Neither power plant was constructed. Greenhouse gas emissions were the basis of both lawsuits. “I think this is one more step in the right direction,” Hedges said. According to the Governor’s Climate Change Advisory Com­mittee, Montana’s 2010 CO2 emissions are expected to be 49.8 million tons. The state’s eight coal-fired power plants account for about have of that amount, Hedges said.


Heated Words at Electric City Power Board Meeting
Originally printed at
Heated debate continued tonight (Monday, 12/7) in Great Falls over the city's involvement with the electricity supplier known as Electric City Power.
It was ECP’s first board meeting since the release of a consulting firm's financial review. It is also the first meeting since ECP was fined about $23,000 by the Public Service Commission.
The report suggests that the city should continue its involvement with the ECP. The ECP Board moved to postpone action on the report until next month, when newly-elected city commissioners will be present, as well as a representative from engineering firm Burns and McDonnell of Kansas City.
"The City has lost millions because of ECP,” said Great Falls CPA Larry Rezentes. “There is no good reason to have it."
"It's good for the city to have its own power,” said ECP Board Member Ole Stimac. “They can lure companies to Great Falls."
Last week, the Public Service Commission fined ECP more than $23,000 for failing to obtain renewable energy credits in 2008. The board says it was a misinterpretation of regulation and that their waivers requests were denied. But some feel it is troubling news.
"I'm concerned about the fines because the tax payers have to pay the fines," said Aart Dolman of Citizens for Clean Energy
ECP has 18 customers. It has operated in Great Falls since 2006. The consultant's report recommends the city continue supplying ECP customers will electricity. Critics say the report is flawed and should have been conducted by an independent committee.
"We created a big problem by foolishly getting involved in an endeavor with no competency or background to manage it," Rezentes said.
"I hope that ECP can go forward and build the Highwood Station," said Stimac. “I hope we can look back on this someday and say we made the right decision."
The EPC board says it will formally discuss the consultant's report at a meeting in January, and invites city officials and the general public. Officials from Burns and McDonnell could appear via teleconference.
Heated Words at Electric City Power Board Meeting*

Historic EPA finding: Greenhouse gases harm humans
By H. JOSEF HEBERT and DINA CAPPIELLO, Associated Press Writers
December 7, 2009
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration took a major step Monday toward imposing the first federal limits on climate-changing pollution from cars, power plants and factories, declaring there was compelling scientific evidence that global warming from manmade greenhouse gases endangers Americans' health.
The announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency was clearly timed to build momentum toward an agreement at the international conference on climate change that opened Monday in Copenhagen, Denmark. It signaled the administration was prepared to push ahead for significant controls in the U.S. if Congress doesn't act first on its own.
The price could be steep for both industry and consumers. The EPA finding clears the way for rules that eventually could force the sale of more fuel-efficient vehicles and require plants to install costly new equipment — at a cost of billions or even many tens of billions of dollars — or shift to other forms of energy.
No analysis has been conducted by the EPA on costs of such broad regulations, although the agency put the price tag of its proposed climate-related car rules at $60 billion, with an estimated benefit of $250 billion.
Energy prices for many Americans probably would rise, too — though Monday's finding will have no immediate impact since regulations have yet to be written. Supporters of separate legislation in Congress argue they could craft measures that would mitigate some of those costs.
Environmentalists hailed the EPA announcement as a clear indication the United States will take steps to attack climate change even if Congress fails to act. And they welcomed the timing of the declaration, saying it will help the Obama administration convince delegates at the international climate talks that the U.S. is serious about addressing the problem. Obama will address the conference next week.
But business groups said regulating carbon emissions through the EPA under existing clean air law would put new economic burdens on manufacturers, cost jobs and drive up energy prices.
"It will choke off growth by adding new mandates to virtually every major construction and renovation project," declared Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which in recent months has been particularly critical of the EPA's attempt to address climate change.
The EPA signaled last April that it was inclined to view heat-trapping pollution as a threat to public health and welfare and began to take public comments for formal rulemaking. That marked a reversal from the Bush administration, which had refused to issue the finding, despite a conclusion by EPA scientists that it was warranted.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Monday, "There are no more excuses for delaying," adding that the so-called endangerment analysis from global warming had been under consideration at the agency for three years. After the official finding, she said the agency is now "obligated to make reasonable efforts to reduce greenhouse pollutants under the Clean Air Act."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama "still believes the best way to move forward is through the legislative process" — something Obama has expressed on a number of occasions as he has pressed Congress to shift the nation's energy priorities away from fossil fuels and to reduce climate-changing pollution.
The EPA said scientific evidence clearly shows that greenhouse gases "threaten the public health and welfare of the American people" and that the pollutants — mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels — should be reduced, if not by Congress then by the agency responsible for enforcing air pollution.
"These long-overdue findings cement 2009's place in history as the year when the United States government began addressing the challenge of greenhouse-gas pollution," said Jackson.
She rejected claims by climate skeptics that the science of global warming remains in doubt, an argument given additional attention in recent weeks with the disclosure through intercepted e-mails that a British scientist had privately discussed ways to shield certain climate data from public scrutiny.
"The vast body of evidence not only remains unassailable, it has grown even stronger," said Jackson.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a lead author of a climate bill before the Senate, said of the finding: "This is a clear message to Copenhagen of the Obama administration's commitments to address global climate change. ... The message to Congress is crystal clear: Get moving."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also a co-author, said, "The Senate has a duty to act."
Business groups have strongly argued against tackling global warming through the Clean Air Act, saying it is less flexible and more costly than the cap-and-trade legislation being considered by Congress. Any regulations from the EPA are certain to spawn lawsuits and a lengthy legal fights.
"Such regulations would be intrusive, inefficient and excessively costly, chill job growth and delay business expansion," argued Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, which also has been critical of the climate legislation before Congress.
"The Clean Air Act can complement legislation," said Jackson. In fact, if Congress were to cap greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA probably would be given the responsibility of implementing the law.
The EPA's involvement in reducing climate-changing pollution, stems from a 2007 Supreme Court decision that declared that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act. But the court said the EPA would have to determine if these pollutants pose a danger to public health and welfare before it could regulate them.
UN says climate finale may have happy ending
By ARTHUR MAX, Associated Press Writer
December 6, 2009
COPENHAGEN – Delegates converged Sunday for the grand finale of two years of tough, sometimes bitter negotiations on a climate change treaty, as U.N. officials calculated that pledges offered in the last few weeks to reduce greenhouse gases put the world within reach of keeping global warming under control.
Yvo de Boer, the U.N.'s top climate official, said on the eve of the 192-nation conference that despite unprecedented unity and concessions, industrial countries and emerging nations need to dig deeper.
"Time is up," de Boer said. "Over the next two weeks governments have to deliver."
Finance — billions of dollars immediately and hundreds of billions of dollars annually within a decade — was emerging as the key to unblocking an agreement that would bind the global community to a sweeping plan to combat climate change.
Nations also must need to commit to larger emission reductions, de Boer said.
South Africa on Sunday became the latest country to announce an emissions target. It said over the next 10 years it would reduce emissions by 34 percent from "business as usual," the level they would reach under ordinary circumstances. By 2025 that figure would peak at 42 percent, effectively leveling off and thereafter begin to decline.
"This makes South Africa one of the stars of the negotiations," said the environmental group Greenpeace.
President Barack Obama's decision to attend the conclusion of the two-week conference, after phone consultations with other heads of state, was taken as a signal that an agreement was getting closer. He originally planned to make an hourslong stop in the Danish capital this week.
More than 100 heads of state and government have said they will attend the last day or two, making Copenhagen the largest and most important summit ever held on climate.
"Never in the 17 years of climate negotiations have so many different nations made so many firm pledges together," de Boer said. "It's simply unprecedented."
Some were arriving to the summit on trains splashed with a green stripe to symbolize efforts to reduce the convention's carbon footprint. One train carried 450 U.N. officials, delegates, climate activists and journalists from Brussels and more trains were leaving from other European capitals.
Along with roughly 15,000 delegates and at least 100 world leaders, officials expect many protesters to descend on Copenhagen for the climate conference. Authorities were beefing up security in preparation.
A study released by the U.N. Environment Program Sunday indicated that pledges by industrial countries and major emerging nations fall just short of the reductions of greenhouse gas emissions that scientists have said are needed.
"For those who claim a deal in Copenhagen is impossible, they are simply wrong," said U.N. Environment Program Director Achim Steiner, releasing the report compiled by British economist Lord Nicholas Stern and the Grantham Research Institute.
Environmentalists have warned that emissions commitments were dangerously short of what U.N. scientists have said were needed to keep average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C (3.6F).
But most of those warnings were based on pledges only from industrial countries. The U.N. report included pledges from China and other rapidly developing countries, which in turn were contingent on rich-country funding to help.
All countries together should emit no more than 44 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2020 to avoid the worst consequences of a warming world, the report said.
Computing the high end of all commitments publicly announced so far, the report said emissions will total some 46 billion tons annually in 2020. Emissions today are about 47 billion tons.
"We are within a few gigatons of having a deal," Steiner said. "The gap has narrowed significantly."
Negotiations on a new climate treaty began in earnest two years ago with the aim of crafting a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which bound industrial countries to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other Earth-warming gases from 1990 levels, but which made no obligations on countries such as India and China. That omission caused much resentment and the United States rejected Kyoto.
Months of deadlock were broken in the last few weeks when China and India announced voluntary targets for lowering the greenhouse gas component of economic growth. Emissions would continue to climb, but at a lower rate. They said, however, they would not accept legally binding targets that could imply consequences if they fall short.
At the same time, Obama said he would commit to an emissions cut of 17 percent from 2005, even though those cuts have not yet been approved by Congress.
U.S. can show flexibility, even if it cannot raise its emissions offer, said Jonathan Pershing, the senior U.S. delegate at the talks. He said the Obama administration was showing its seriousness through budget allocations and regulatory actions on big polluters.
Pershing defended the U.S. position as a radical change from the former administration under George W. Bush.
A year ago "we had a position that this issue was not essential and not critical," he said, calling the shift staggering. "Think about how long it takes for a major country to fundamentally change its position, and this is a miraculously short period of rapid change," he said.
Delegates from several developing countries, however, were less optimistic, and were concerned that the major powers were cutting a deal behind the scenes that could betray the interests of poorer nations.

December 2, 2009

Electric City Power fights for new meters By JOHN S. ADAMS Tribune Capitol Bureau
HELENA — The city of Great Falls' utility arm, Electric City Power, squared off in court on Tuesday with the Public Service Commission and NorthWestern Energy over whether ECP should have the right to provide its customers with additional power.
The case stems from the Montana Legislature's 1997 deregulation of energy utilities and subsequent reregulation in 2007. The city of Great Falls has 17 commercial utility customers, including Benefis Health System, which agreed a few years ago to buy electricity from ECP under Montana's partly deregulated energy market.
The Legislature partly reregulated energy in 2007. As part of that legislation, ECP was cut off on Oct. 1 of that year from signing up any new customers who would use less than 5 megawatts of power.
Harley Harris, the attorney representing ECP in court Tuesday, said the city should still have the right to add new meters or replace existing meters for customers it signed up prior to Oct. 1, 2007. NorthWestern Energy blocked ECP from providing those meters.
The PSC earlier this year sided with NorthWestern, which said that new meters constituted new customers under the terms laid out in the 2007 reregulation legislation, and therefore couldn't be served by ECP. Commissioners ruled 5-0 that the new meters fell under NorthWestern's jurisdiction, based on the Oct. 1, 2007, deadline.
The city appealed the PSC's decision to State District Court in Helena.
Benefis Health System, which is building a large new patient tower and is seeking to buy more electricity, joined Great Falls and ECP in the suit, which was filed Feb. 17.
Harris told District Judge Kathy Seeley that the PSC used a "tortured definition of customer" when the commission made its decision favoring NorthWestern. Harris said the PSC determined that new meters constituted new customers. He said meters, by definition, cannot be considered customers and that the intent of the Legislature was to allow electricity suppliers such as ECP to continue to serve existing customers' power needs.
"The Legislature said in October of 2007 that customers who were currently exercising choice (of electricity providers) could continue to do so and that the customer is not a meter, it's the entity," Harris said. "The goals of the Legislature were to reintegrate and end deregulation, and to protect and preserve existing contracts and relationships that were built between 1997 and 2007. One goal didn't trump the other."
Al Brogan, an attorney representing the PSC in the suit, said that based on the classifications of customers laid out in the 2007 legislation, the point of delivery — in this case the meters — constitutes a customer. Therefore, new meters should be considered new customers, and thus should be served by NorthWestern.
"The change in the classification criteria led to the change in the definition of a customer," Brogan said.
He said the PSC's ruling in favor of NorthWestern also protects smaller electricity consumers. NorthWestern needs to be able to forecast its customer base's electricity usage in order to secure long-term energy contracts at a lower cost, Brogan said. If suppliers such as ECP are able to continue to cut into that customer base, it makes it difficult to secure such contracts, he added.
A decision in the case is expected early next year.


Duke Energy brings Wyoming wind farm on line
Associated Press | Posted: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 6:55 am
CHEYENNE, Wyo. - Duke Energy says it has brought a 99-megawatt wind farm on line in Converse County.
The Campbell Hill project's 66 turbines produce enough electricity to power about 30,000 homes each year.
Duke says the project will supply wind energy to PacifiCorp under a 20-year purchase agreement.
Duke Energy also has announced plans to build a 200-megawatt wind power project near Casper next year.

December 2, 2009

MATL celebration appropriate as work on power line starts
The door to increased wind-power generation in northcentral Montana opened much wider this week when top officials and backers of the Great Falls-to-Lethbridge power transmission line got together to mark the start of construction on the $215 million project.
When it's done — in spring 2011, it is hoped — the Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. line will provide an outlet for as much as a billion dollars' worth of new wind-power generation in the region.
It also will provide a green-energy option sufficient to power more than 200,000 households in the United States and Canada.
The 214-mile line is historic on a couple of levels, starting with being the first new major transmission project in the region in a couple of decades.
It's also the first "merchant" transmission line in the United States, according to Johan Van't Hof, president of Toronto-based Tonbridge Power Inc., MATL's parent company.
That means MATL will operate on a business model akin to a railroad: The line is built by a private company that then charges producers for shipping space. MATL's line is fully booked northbound by NaturEner's planned $800 million, 300-megawatt project planned north of U.S. Highway 2 in Montana, and southbound by three other wind projects, including Invenergy's Judith Gap project.
Monday's event was attended by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who thanked the line's backers "for believing in Montana wind."
In four years, he said, the state has gone from generating just 1 megawatt of wind power to 376 megawatts, and hundreds more are now possible because of MATL.
Added Leonard Mitzel, a member of the Alberta Legislative Assembly from the Medicine Hat and Cypress area: "Today we celebrate another link between Alberta and Montana."
Indeed, it will be a link that will bolster commerce, local and state government coffers, and the wallets of more than 350 land landowners on both sides of the border.
Congratulations to MATL and to supporters of the line for navigating the regulatory maze to gain approval of a line that will span a score of local jurisdictions and link a province, a state and two nations.


December 2, 2009

Megawatts schmegawatts ... what do the numbers mean? By GARY MOSEMAN Tribune Managing Editor
This column started out as a possible "Number of the week" for the Tribune's Saturday Edge column, but as I dug into the subject, it transformed itself into something different.
First: It's a correction.
In our front-page story about Monday's celebration of the start of construction on a 214-mile, 300-megawatt power transmission line from Great Falls to Lethbridge, Alberta, it was stated matter-of-factly that the electricity carried by the line would be sufficient to power 35,000 homes.
That prompted an office wag Tuesday morning to express surprise at all the hoopla.
That's a lot of money ($215 million) and trouble for just 35,000 homes, he said.
To be exact, if the number were right it would be $6,143 per home, which seemed pretty high, even to the nonexperts in our office.
But of course, the number
isn't right.
It turns out a zero was dropped in the press packet handed out at Monday's celebration. The number — always a vague estimate that varies by region and energy options — should have been closer to 350,000 households, according to Montana Alberta Tie Ltd. Vice President Bob Williams.
Now we're talking. That brings MATL's per-household cost down to $614, a more reasonable figure in anyone's book.
Before I reached Williams by phone Tuesday morning, though, I had started my search for a response to the office wag with a reality check: What's the industry-accepted estimate of
homes per megawattfor projecting the impact of a power project?
Google searches yielded a variety of answers, none satisfactory to my purpose. In fact most contained far more details about electrical engineering and physics than I wanted (i.e.,
understood). Some even included — horrors! — formulas.
After a loose reading of those Web sites, however, it seemed that a good rule of thumb might be about a thousand homes per megawatt — a much higher number than MATL's estimate, which was just 116 or so.
Then I remembered that PPL Montana, on its Web site describing the hydroelectric dams in Montana, had used such numbers. Looking it up again, my memory was pretty good: PPL says a megawatt of electricity will power about 750 homes.
A call to NorthWestern Energy spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch confirmed that 750 homes per megawatt is a decent number for Montana consumers.
To make a long story shorter, we now know that MATL was notusing a low number. To the contrary it had intended to use a slightly high one.
But even if MATL used the number employed by the Montana utilities, the new power line could be said to carry enough juice for 225,000 homes, a nice piece of work.
With that mystery solved, I also was interested in putting the size of the project — and of others in the region — into some kind of perspective.
So just how much power is 300 megawatts in the cosmic scale of things?
The answer is: not huge, but also not insignificant.
It's enough power for 225,000 to 350,000 households, obviously. It also would comprise about 10 percent of the average year-round power production in Montana, which the Department of Environmental Quality says is about 3,000 mw. It would be just under 6 percent of summertime peak production (said by the DEQ to be 5,200 mw, a number that's rising because of new wind generation coming online).
By far the biggest contributors to the Montana grid are the four coal-fired plants at Colstrip, which crank out 2,100 mw. Quite a bit, but still not huge.
Huge would be Grand Coulee Dam northwest of Spokane on the Columbia River, which generates an astonishing 6,809 megawatts of electricity. That's substantially more from a single dam than is generated by all the windmills, coal plants, hydro dams and cogenerators in Montana.
As a footnote to all of this "research," we'd note that there must be good money in power generation.
After all, PPL Montana is spending $230 million — more than the total cost of the MATL line — to add just 25 megawatts to the generating capacity of Rainbow Dam near Great Falls.
That will bring the total generating capacity of the five Missouri River dams in the Great Falls area to 251 mw.


December 1, 2009

PSC fines city utility over lack of renewables By RICHARD ECKE Tribune Staff Writer
Great Falls' municipal utility arm, Electric City Power, faces a $23,260 fine from the state Public Service Commission for failing to obtain renewable energy credits in 2008.
In a unanimous vote at a work session last Tuesday, the PSC voted 5-0 to fine Electric City Power, rejecting city requests for leniency.
Competitive electricity suppliers fall under a 2005 state law that requires at least 5 percent of their power portfolio to come from renewable energy. The law was specifically applied to groups such as Electric City Power through an amendment legislators passed in 2007.
The PSC's formal order may go out later this week or early next week.
"I don't think anybody likes to see penalties for noncompliance," said Coleen Balzarini, executive director of Electric City Power and the city's fiscal officer.
An appeal is one option city officials will discuss, but it's not a foregone conclusion, she indicated.
For one thing, Balzarini said, the commission's fine is only $5,815 more than what it would have cost for the city to purchase the necessary renewable energy credits in 2008.
The city could pay the fine, or it could appeal the PSC order and incur more legal costs, Balzarini said.
Balzarini said the city will comply with state renewable energy requirements in 2009, thanks to power it creates from sewage at the city's wastewater treatment plant, plus renewable wind energy credits it has already purchased this year. She said a few more credits might need to be purchased before a March 31, 2010 deadline.
"We've already got our credits in place for 2009," Balzarini said.
The city's failure to obtain the energy credits for 2008 drew rebukes Monday from two Great Falls men who have criticized the city's energy venture in the past.
Great Falls freelance writer Travis Kavulla said the PSC actions "bring into question whether the city really possesses the requisite experience and knowledge to run a power company in the 21st century. This is a major oversight and really speaks volumes to how poorly ECP has followed the energy laws of the state."
"The city has known about this for some time," said Richard Liebert, chairman of Citizens for Clean Energy. "They should keep their eye on the ball."
According to the state agency, Electric City Power should have obtained 2,326 kilowatt-hours worth of renewable energy credits for 2008.
City government hoped to receive credit for the 1,425 kilowatt-hours its cogeneration facility produced at the wastewater treatment plant in Great Falls' Riverview area in 2008. The project uses sewage and other materials at the plant to generate electricity. However, city government failed to obtain state certification and had not yet registered with the Western Renewable Energy Generation Information System.
PSC staff member Kate Whitney last Tuesday recommended the commission reject Electric City Power's several requests for leniency. She contended Electric City Power failed to take "all reasonable steps" to meet state requirements by a March 31, 2009 deadline for 2008.
Balzarini said PSC staff was cooperative and the city hoped its efforts to comply in 2009 would help get it out from underneath penalties for 2008.
"Would we have liked some mercy?" Balzarini asked. "Yeah."
Balzarini noted Electric City Power's purchase of wind energy credits this year does not mean the city gets to use the actual electricity generated. A renewable energy credit simply supports a renewable energy operation.
Kavulla said the city could have saved itself at least $10,000 simply by getting the cogeneration facility certified by the deadline.
Al Brogan, a PSC staff attorney, said the PSC has no authority over whether the city charges the fine to its customers or pays it from general city coffers. Balzarini said the cost will be passed on to customers, not to the city's general fund or taxpayers.
Brogan said three other groups were asked to justify their renewable energy portfolios, but only Great Falls was proved to have failed to comply. Another group, the Western Area Power Administration, pointed out it was a federal agency that's not subject to state regulation.
In addition, Brogan defended the PSC's impartiality in cases involving Electric City Power in Great Falls.
"I do not believe that the commission is predisposed to be unfair to anybody," Brogan said.
At Tuesday's work session, PSC Chairman Greg Jergeson noted he had been previously accused at Electric City Power Board meetings of being unfair to Great Falls.
"I'm kind of reluctant to say anything at this point," Jergeson said.
However, Public Service Commissioner Ken Toole said he did not think the commission should be "dinking around" with renewable energy credits by granting a lot of waivers.
"It's important that the rules are consistently applied," Toole said at the meeting. "That's a major concern to me." Commissioner Brad Molnar voted yes by proxy, making the decision unanimous.

November 30th, 2009 by Travis Kavulla
Just got off the phone with a staffer at the Public Service Commission. The above figure is the amount of the fine levied against Electric City Power for its management’s failure to procure renewable energy credits in 2008, as required by state law.
Since the law requires public utilities not to raise rates to pay such fines, looks like it’ll be coming out of the City’s tax dollars.
This is such a clear demonstration of why the City should not have a power company; it simply is too small and inexperienced to have the needed organizational competence to navigate the myriad laws and administrative rules that govern this particular topic.
You can follow the whole story at this link:

Rehberg opposes legislation that would bring clean energy jobs to Montana
JASON KIELY | Posted: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 12:00 am
Earlier this year, when given a clear choice between supporting new clean energy jobs for Montana or continuing to line the pockets of the big oil companies, Rep. Denny Rehberg sided with Big Oil.
Rehberg voted against a comprehensive clean energy jobs bill that would tap American ingenuity to jump-start technological advances and create more clean American power. He voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which passed the U.S. House with bipartisan support.

Costs exaggerated

Instead of embracing America’s clean energy future, Rehberg (Nov. 22 guest opinion) continues singing from Big Oil’s song book, citing stats from the oil-industry-funded Heritage Foundation. The fact is that Big Oil and corporate polluters are grossly exaggerating the cost of clean energy legislation in an effort to block needed reform and protect their profits. Those same Washington special interests are filling Rep. Rehberg’s campaign war chest — he’s received more than $500,000 in contributions from Big Oil and energy interests.
Despite the congressman’s claims of supporting alternative energy,  Rehberg has repeatedly said “no” when it comes to clean energy. Last year, when it very clearly came down to choosing between job-creating tax incentives for clean energy or protecting Big Oil’s profits, Rehberg voted to continue billions in taxpayer-funded giveaways to the oil industry.
Big Oil has been putting those corporate profits to good use with an anti-clean energy smear campaign. In 2008, the American Petroleum Institute spent over $75 million for public relations and advertising. In just the first six months of this year the oil and gas industries have doled out more than $82 million on lobbying.
We all know that Montana families are struggling and that the state has lost thousands of jobs, but the regressive energy policies supported by Rehberg and Big Oil won’t get us out of this mess. We’re spending $1 billion a day on foreign oil — money that could be invested to create clean energy jobs here at home. But without real reform to our energy policy, corporate polluters will continue to make record profits while family budgets suffer.

6,000 new energy jobs

The truth is that a comprehensive approach to energy — including limits on carbon pollution — will create the necessary stability in the market for clean energy industries to invest in their businesses and create new jobs. Analysis shows the bill would help bring more than 6,000 new jobs and $460 million in investment revenue into Montana, according to the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
These new clean energy jobs look a lot like traditional American jobs: building wind power turbines requires sheet metal workers, machinists and truckers, and installing solar panels and improving the energy efficiency of our buildings creates work for roofers and carpenters. And while transitioning to a clean energy economy will require some short-term costs — about $175 a year per household — it’s better to invest that money in clean energy sources that are made in America than to let the new energy jobs of the future go overseas.
Now the campaign for energy reform moves on to the U.S. Senate. While Sen. Max  Baucus did not vote for the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act in committee, we are encouraged by his recent statements of support for climate legislation and his commitment to work to get legislation through the Senate. We look forward to working with both Sens. Baucus and Tester to pass a strong, comprehensive clean energy and climate bill that creates new jobs, makes the United States more energy independent and protects Montana’s outdoors for future generations.
Jason Kiely, of Missoula, works for a renewable chemical business and volunteers as chairman of the Montana Conservation Voters board of directors.

November 28, 2009

Critics blast Electric City Power report By RICHARD ECKE Tribune Staff Writer
Critics blasted a new report recommending the city of Great Falls stay in the electricity business and negotiate a 10 percent rate hike with its power customers.
Larry Rezentes of Great Falls ripped the study by Burns & McDonnell of Kansas City as "a blatant whitewash."
Rezentes, who holds certified public accountant credentials, noted the report came two months later than advertised, and accused the consultants of ignoring various aspects of the energy venture that are unflattering to the city.
The city's electric utility, Electric City Power, was formed in November 2005 but lost money selling electricity to government agencies, nonprofit groups and area businesses during its first three years, from 2006 through 2008.
The utility moved into the black this calendar year, said Fiscal Services Director Coleen Balzarini. It's not clear whether the decision to write off the city's $1.1 million investment in a coal-fired power plant would plunge the city back into red ink.
City Manager Greg Doyon released the report earlier this week, and its contents were promptly criticized by several skeptics.
In addition to Rezentes, critics who ripped the report were Aart Dolman, a retired university professor, and Richard Liebert, a retired military man who is chairman of Citizens for Clean Energy.
Critics in recent years have taken the city to task for launching its electric utility, and trying to invest money in a coal-fired power plant east of Great Falls, in a time of concern over climate change and potential taxes aimed at utilities that burn fossil fuels to create electricity.
Burns & McDonnell, however, praised the city's past decision-making, saying the city took "the right direction" at a time when carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs were futuristic concepts.
"This demonstrates prudent decision-making on behalf of SMEC (Southern Montana Electric Cooperative) based on providing the least-expensive cost of energy for its members," the study said.
Skeptics found such conclusions difficult to swallow this week.
"All one has to do is go to the Burns & McDonnell Web site and see that they love coal," said Dolman, a member of Citizens for Clean Energy.
Dolman added the study "is a piece of unacceptable research and certainly its conclusions must be questioned. It seems to me that our city fathers have squandered some more taxpayer funds for a piece of useless research."
"The consultants did remind us all that that ECP plundered other city funds to stay subsidized," Liebert said Friday. "The report, however, is still distorted, dismissed public transparency and the city manager himself said it is incomplete. Public power might be a noble goal, but the ECP model is flawed, and the public had no vote."
City Commissioner Mary Jolley, the commissioner most critical of the city's energy efforts, said Friday she wishes the report had offered more details.
"The report, it's like a cartoon," Jolley said. "It doesn't go into anything in depth."
Jolley also questioned why the consultants would recommend changing a city ordinance that requires Electric City Power to at least break even financially. Rezentes particularly has criticized the city for allowing Electric City Power to violate that ordinance.
The report said the break-even requirement does not state a time period, has been "an ineffective tool," and recommended changes to the ordinance it said might help the city head off losses or deal with them.
City offices were closed Friday. Commissioner Bill Bronson and Mayor Dona Stebbins could not be reached for early reactions Friday to the report. Commissioners Bill Beecher and John Rosenbaum are leaving the commission in early January; Fred Burow and Bob Jones will replace them. Doyon said he believes the new commission will be the one to act on the report's recommendations.
Tim Gregori, general manager of the Southern Montana Electric rural cooperative that proposed the power plant, could not be reached Friday.
The new consultants' study may be zestily debated at the next Electric City Power Board meeting, set for 5:30 p.m. Dec. 7 in the Gibson Room of the Civic Center, 2 Park Drive S. An agenda for that meeting has not been released.

November 25, 2009

Report: Stick with city's power arm By RICHARD ECKE Tribune Staff Writer
Don't abandon the city's electric utility arm, Electric City Power, consultants suggested to city of Great Falls officials Tuesday.
Instead, negotiate electricity rate hikes with customers of about 10 percent, hire a full-time accounting employee to deal with the utility, and pare the utility arm's advisory board from five members to three, the consultants recommended in a 40-page report.
City government Tuesday released the long-awaited report from Burns and McDonnell, a Kansas City, Mo., firm that produced a study for the city at a cost of about $60,000.
City Manager Greg Doyon told city commissioners Tuesday afternoon the study did not completely answer all the city's questions, including what to do about the city's relationship with the Southern Montana Electric Transmission and Generation Cooperative, wholesale supplier of electricity to the city.
Doyon at a city agenda-setting meeting passed out copies of the report and urged commissioners to digest its contents before the commission digs deeply into it.
"There it is," Doyon said as he handed copies to the city's five commissioners, who began leafing through the pages.
Outgoing Mayor Dona Stebbins noted the report recommended the city retain its partial interest in ownership of the gas-fired Highwood Generating Station proposed for eight miles east of Great Falls.
The consultants recommended that the city "not liquidate ECP" and that it continue public power efforts through at least 2019, when power contracts expire with PPL Montana.
City government buys power and then sells it to other government agencies, nonprofit groups and area businesses. Its efforts from 2006 through 2008 produced red ink, but city officials said ECP began turning a profit this year.
The report recommended the city immediately begin negotiations for rate hikes with customers, perhaps in the 10 percent range, and hire an experienced staff accountant who would spent 100 percent of his or her time on the electric utility.
The report also recommended the city retain its ownership of a portion of the proposed gas-fired Highwood Generating Station east of Great Falls, and reduce the Electric City Power Board to three members rather than five.
Customers of the city have benefitted from the service, according to the consultants.
"Almost all customers realized lower energy bills utilizing ECP than if they had contracted with NWE (NorthWestern Energy) for their supply of electricity," the report said.
The report also touched on the gas-fired power plant, which might cost $250 million to build. It said initial costs of power from the plant are estimated to average $72 per megawatt-hour, a figure higher than current charges by NorthWestern Energy, the state's dominant electricity supplier.
However, the report called the gas plant "the least-cost firm energy option" available to the rural electric cooperatives that plan to build the plant, and it predicted the plant would be among the lowest-cost commercial options in the years 2011 and 2012.
So far, the report maintained, rates from the city's electricity wholesale supplier, Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative, have been lower than those of NorthWestern Energy. It called Southern Montana a viable player in the region's energy market.
Doyon predicted not everyone will be happy with the report.
"What, this is not going to make everybody happy?" Stebbins asked with a laugh.
Some critics have urged the city cut its losses and move quickly to dismantle the electric utility, which has lost money for most of its existence.
"It's no surprise to me," said one skeptic, retired professor Aart Dolman of Great Falls, when apprised of some of the report's recommendations. Several critics planned to study the report this week.
Doyon said the commission could ask one or two staffers from Burns & McDonnell to return to Great Falls to answer questions in the coming weeks, or it could hold a video-conferencing session with consultants as a cost-saving measure. He said the session probably would be conducted with a mostly new City Commission to be sworn in early in January.
"The bulk of it is going to fall into the laps of the new commission," Doyon said. New commissioners may be less supportive of the power venture than existing ones.
The consultants' report may be discussed at an Electric City Power Board meeting set for 5:30 p.m. Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day.

Wind Development Seminar

Landowners concerned with commercial wind lease agreements and people
interested in small wind systems will have an opportunity to learn about
wind energy on Dec. 7 in Great Falls and Dec. 8 in Cut Bank.
MSU Extension is providing two, one-day trainings on issues of wind
energy, ranging from commercial wind development and land leasing issues
to small wind system information for homeowners.
The Central Montana Wind Energy Update will begin in Great Falls at the
MSU College of Technology, Heritage Hall at 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 7.
The same session will begin at the Elk’s Club at 11:30 a.m. in Cut Bank on
Dec. 8.
The first several hours of the update will provide landowners with a
review of commercial wind energy activity in the state, an overview of
legal issues to consider when leasing by James Hackstaff of Hackstaff,
Gessler, LLC, a law firm from Denver, perspectives on leasing from a
commercial wind developer, compass wind, an overview of landowner
association models, and an update on transmission line developments in
The small wind session, which will begin at 6 p.m., will provide
information to the general public on small wind systems, how to select a
system, and financial assistance programs that can help to off-set
expenses associated with system installation.
The same session will be offered in both Great Falls and Cut Bank. A free
lunch will be served at both locations, but pre-registration for the meal
is required by noon on Dec. 4.
Please contact MSU Extension Cascade County (406) 454-6980 or MSU
Extension Glacier County (406) 873-2239 for further information.


November 22, 2009

Commercial buildings more energy-efficient as the greening of Great Falls blossoms By ERIN MADISON Tribune Staff Writer
When CTA Architects and Engineers purchased an old warehouse in downtown Great Falls to transform into the company's new office building, they saw a gem through the crumbling brick, failing foundation, uneven floors and rotting wood.
They also saw an opportunity to practice what they preach — sustainable building practices.
When CTA opens its building next month, it will be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, facility.
Green commercial construction is becoming increasingly popular.
"More and more projects we're hearing about are requiring it," said Ryan Smith, LEED certified architect at L'Heureux Page Werner.
Rhe Missouri River Federal Courthouse is applying for LEED certification. The new First Interstate Bank building on 10th Avenue South will also be LEED certified, as will CTA's new building.
Tony Houtz, LEED certified architect at CTA, expects to see more LEED buildings in the future.
Houtz met a developer in Portland, Ore. who said if buildings aren't sustainable, businesses won't lease space in them.
Seattle and Portland recently changed their city codes to require new buildings to be high performing and energy-efficient.
"It won't be long until that sort of thing starts coming here," Houtz said.
The U.S. Building Council's LEED program has been around since the late '90s and offers a third party system to rate the sustainability of new construction and remodels both in commercial and residential projects.
The certification is based on a points system. Buildings get point for things such as solar panels, recycled materials and diverting waste from the landfill.
Depending on the number of points earned, a building can achieve different levels of certification — platinum, gold, silver and certified.
LEED certification goes far beyond building practices and energy-efficient mechanical systems. Projects can get points on how they're oriented to best let light into a building, their proximity to walking or bus routes and landscaping that minimizes erosion.
In addition to being environmentally friendly, LEED certification also focuses on the health of people who work inside a building.
LEED encourages the use of materials, such as carpet and paint, with low volatile organic compounds, which can cause short- and long-term health effects. Before the building is occupied, it's flushed to help reduce VOCs. Fresh air is also vented into the building to help maintain healthy levels of carbon dioxide.
High-performance buildings can lead to higher employee retention, productivity and morale, and fewer employee sick days, Houtz said.
One of the challenges of green building is that it's typically more expensive than conventional building.
"The hard sell to owners is, to do a LEED project, it's going to cost more upfront," Smith said.
Typically those costs will be recouped after a period of time. Depending on the project, the payback period can be anywhere from five to 20 years, he said.
There are some green practices that don't cost anything, such as building orientation and location, Houtz said.
Other practices can lead to an upfront savings. On recent project, Smith found that by upgrading the windows, he was able to downsize the mechanical system by 10 percent.
Building in a remote area such as Montana does pose some challenges for LEED certification, said Jule Stuber, architect with CTA.
For example a project gets points for using materials extracted and produced within a 500 mile radius, which can be hard to find in the middle of Montana.
"That is one challenge," Stuber said.
Some of the points are also geared toward more urban areas, such as having designated parking spots for hybrid vehicles or proximity to a subway system.
The largest challenge is educating consumers and contractors about the advantages of green building practices.
"It's a different way of thinking," Houtz said.
CTA Architects Engineers
CTA purchased an old warehouse in 2008 to transform into an office building for the firm.
The warehouse, located at 219 2nd Ave. S., was built in 1917 as a candy warehouse and was later used to warehouse RC Cola.
"It's been a warehouse forever," Houtz said.
CTA hopes to achieve a LEED gold rating for the project.
LEED is being driven by the 18-to-25-year-old sector who place high importance on the environment, Martin Byrnes, architect at CTA, said.
"It's becoming more and more important," he said.
CTA has even seen some graduates who won't go to work for an architect firm that isn't in a LEED building.
The new building will also offer an opportunity to show of sustainable practices to the firm's clients.
"For clients, this space becomes a study," Houtz said. "The whole building in itself is a studio project."
CTA's new building will be 30 percent more efficient than if conventional building practices had been used, said Cory Jassen, mechanical engineer at CTA, or possibly more depending on final analyses.
CTA is using a geo-thermal heating and cooling system.
They drilled 650 feet deep into the Madison aquifer to obtain water that will be at a constant 55 degrees. That water is run through a heat exchanger and used to heat or cool water that runs through the building's in-floor radiant heat system. In the summertime the heat from the building is transferred into the well water to cool the building and in wintertime heat is extracted from the well water to heat the building.
The flooring is made of Warmboard, a plywood sheet molded with an aluminum panel with slots for radiant tubing. The aluminum panel helps conduct heat so that there aren't hot and cold spots on the floor. By varying the temperature of the water circulating through the floor in multiple zones, CTA is able to either heat or cool without fans, decreasing energy costs. When it is either extremely cold or hot, auxiliary heating and cooling units with low horsepower fans will supplement the radiant floor system.
Radiant in-floor heat is fairly common, but the radiant cooling system is cutting-edge, Jassen said.
Radiant cooling has the potential for condensation of moisture from the ambient air on the cool floor. To prevent condensation a system will monitor the air dewpoint and adjust the cooling water temperature to ensure it is always greater than the air dewpoint, he said.
CTA is also using a solar air heating system on the roof. The bank of four solar ducts move the fresh ventilation air across dark metal surfaces warmed by the sun to preheat the air, thereby reducing the load on the heating systems.
"In the winter time we can use the sun's heat to heat it part way up," Jassen said.
In summer, air is brought into the building through a normal intake vent.
An important part of LEED is indoor air quality and keeping fresh air circulating through the building. CTA's facility is using is a demand-based ventilation system that senses the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and ventilates only as much as needed.
For example, when the conference room is being used by lots of people breathing out carbon dioxide it will be more heavily ventilated than when the room is empty.
The reduced ventilation air flow saves fan energy, heating energy, and cooling energy.
"That one feature triggers savings in a couple different areas," Jassen said.
CTA tried to take advantage of natural light by creating open spaces and allowing light from the front of the building to penetrate inside the building. Interior walls don't touch the exterior walls so that the light from a single window will spread to multiple offices.
More than 75 percent of the material removed from the site in construction was either reused or recycled.
Throughout the building, CTA worked to reuse materials. Support beams that were removed and replaced were refinished and used as stairs steps. Bricks removed to open walls were re-used in other areas. The reception desk will be made out of recycled sugar cane. Even a shuffle board table located in the basement was reclaimed from the Evergreen Fire Department.
Byrnes expects a payback on the building within 15 years, and in the long run, the extra work done now will add value to the structure.
First Interstate Bank
Bill Weber, president of First Interstate Bank's Great Falls market, said he can walk around the new First Interstate Bank building on 10th Avenue South with a thermometer and the temperature never changes.
It's amazing how efficient the building is, he said.
The bank, which opened early this month, will be LEED certified. (It's still in the paperwork stages).
First Interstate has made a commitment to build LEED certified facilities going forward, Weber said.
"We are committed to improving the quality of life in the communities that we serve," he said. "We believe that a building that is environmentally friendly is important and is one more way we can make our community a better place to live and work."
It makes sense from a business standpoint as well, Weber said. Many of the systems encouraged by LEED can help reduce energy costs.
The new bank features low-flow plumbing fixtures, an energy efficient elevator and low-e glass, which controls heat transfer through windows.
More than 75 percent of the construction waste was diverted from the landfill, and materials from the building that was demolished were recycled and used in construction. For example, the foundation of the old building was ground up and re-used in the new building.
The new bank building is also a more appropriate size for the financial institution.
First Interstate's downtown building at 425 1st Av. N. was 41,000 square feet. The new building is 18,000 square feet and the space is used very efficiently, Weber said.
Missouri River Federal Courthouse
The new Missouri River Federal Courthouse features bike racks, bricks from Spokane and recycled steel, all of which makes it a green building.
The courthouse should achieve the LEED certified level — it's still going through the certification process.
One of main things LEED looks for is energy consumption, so the courthouse went with a high efficiency HVAC system, said Jeremy Beadles, assist project manager for the courthouse with Sletten Construction.
The heating ventilation air conditioning system recovers heat from air exiting the system and transfers it to fresh air coming into the system, he said. The old air and fresh air never mix, just the heat is exchanged.
The courthouse also got LEED points for site aspects, such as having bike racks and showers for people who ride to work, being located near bust stops, high-density residential areas and services.
The facility also got points for cleaning up the site, which is a designated Brownfield area due to a petroleum plume contaminating the soil.
The courthouse used regional materials, which much come from a 500-mile radius, such as brick from Spokane and reinforcing steel from northern Utah. Recycled materials were also used.
The building's water consumption was reduced by 20 percent through the use of water saving devices and plumbing recirculation, said Erin Pias, LEED coordinator at Hoefer Wysocki Architects, which designed the building.
The glass used on the building has coatings that optimize light transmittance, while blocking heat, she said.
To create a healthy indoor environment, low-VOC materials, such as paints, sealants and carpets, were used inside the building. During construction, crews kept ducts sealed off and kept the whole construction site clean, so there wouldn't be lingering construction dust and debris when it was occupied.
"That just makes it a healthier environment for the occupants," Beadles said.
The building was designed to bring outdoor light inside.
"A certain percent of occupied spaces had to be day-lighted," he said.
During construction, crews worked to prevent storm water runoff from contaminating the river.
They also recycled as much waste as possible, Pias said. Twenty-seven percent of construction waste was diverted from the landfill.
Overall, the courthouse will be 17.5 percent more efficient than a baseline performance rating, she said.
The U.S. General Services Administration, which oversees the construction of federal buildings, including the new federal courthouse in Great Falls, has pledged that all GSA new construction projects and substantial renovations will be LEED certificated.
"They (the government) are really pushing the growth of LEED right now," Stuber, of CTA, said.
The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandated that new federal buildings and major renovations be designed to achieve a 55 percent reduction in consumption of fossil fuels by 2010.
So far Beadles is seeing the LEED push much more on the government side than the private side, he said.
Reach Tribune staff writer Erin Madison at 791-1466, 800-438-6600 or


November 21, 2009

SME to write off $9.1 million By KARL PUCKETT Tribune Staff Writer
Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative lost $9.1 million of its investment in a power project planned east of Great Falls when construction of the coal-fired power plant never materialized, making it an "impaired asset."
Southern Montana, which has invested $40 million in the Highwood Generating Station, now plans to construct a natural gas plant by the same name at the site.
An auditor hired by Southern Montana determined that $9.1 million of the investment the co-op put into the coal-fired power plant won't be "useful" in the current efforts to construct a small natural gas-fired plant eight miles east of Great Falls, Southern Montana and the city of Great Falls said in statements.
The six members of Southern Montana, including the city, will be forced to write off the losses.
On Friday, Southern Montana's board voted to accept an audited financial report that recommended making an adjustment of the books, called a "write down," reflecting the loss of value of the expenditures on the coal-fired facility, including the cost of litigation brought by opponents, co-op officials said.
"This process, as painful as it has been for the Southern Montana Board of Trustees, the member systems and those who worked so hard over the years to advance the coal-fired power plant at (Highwood Generating Station), was necessary to appropriately adjust our financial records for this impaired asset," Southern Montana General Manager Tim Gregori said in a statement. "The financial reconciliation should be the final chapter of this matter."
"It's money down the drain," said Terry Holzer, the general manager of Southern Montana member Yellowstone Valley Cooperative, which is based in Huntley.
The investment won't transfer to the natural gas facility that Southern Montana plans to construct, Holzer said. In addition, Yellowstone will be forced to write off its share of the losses against year-end net income, he added.
Yellowstone is disputing its $3.6 million share of the loss, saying the city of Great Falls' portion should be larger given its large share of power purchases.
"I think the other co-ops should stand up for their members," he said.
Coleen Balzarini, fiscal services director for the city of Great Falls, told City Manager Greg Doyon in a memorandum that the city's portion of the write down is $905,019, which is money the city already spent for site development, permitting, design and construction.
That amount currently is listed on the city's books as an asset, but she's recommending that Electric City Power, the city's utility arm, list it as an expense for fiscal year 2009, a financial reporting adjustment called "asset impairment," she said.
Rates charged to ECP customers will pay for the previously incurred charges, Balzarini said.
Doyon said the ECP board will take up the issue next month.
"It might answer some questions about the initial investment into Highwood, and what's been written off because they were unable to complete the coal-fired plant successfully," Doyon said.
"It's just going to change now from one column to another column, which is no surprise because there's no coal plant being built," said City Commissioner May Jolley, who has criticized the city's involvement in selling electricity.
Balzarini also is recommending that another $239,485 of interest expense associated with the city's investment in the coal-fired power plant be considered an impaired asset, bringing the total asset-to-expense shift to $1.1 million.
The city has contributed $2.3 million to the Highwood Generating Station project.
Earlier this year, SME electric, Southern Montana's development arm, announced it would build a 120-megawatt, $210 million natural gas-fired facility instead of the coal-fired facility.
Gregori said Friday that those plans remain on track, though no start date for construction has been announced.
In a statement, Southern Montana said the loss of $9.1 million underscores the risk of developing projects in Montana in a "less than predictable public review process."
The coal-fired plant's pollution controls were challenged before the state Board of Environmental Review and in state district court.
Additionally, Southern Montana was counting on a low-interest loan from the U.S. Rural Utilities Service to build the coal-fired facility, but that fell through when RUS announced it would no longer providing such loans for new coal-fired power generation facilities.
The natural gas plant also is being challenged, though not over emissions. Landowners are suing Cascade County for rezoning the land for the project to heavy industrial in the midst of agricultural land. The case of alleged spot zoning is pending before the state Supreme Court.
The natural gas-fired facility will add price stability and predictability to the participating utility systems, Southern Montana officials said. The rural electric nonprofit generation and transmission cooperative is made up of Yellowstone Valley Electric, Beartooth Electric, Fergus Electric, Tongue River Electric, Mid-Yellowstone Electric, and Electric City Power.

Mayor Stebbins and Commissioners:

Please find attached a press release from Southern and a memorandum from Coleen describing the asset impairment process discussed by the Southern Board today. As I understand it, the write-down reduces the asset value of the city’s investment in the coal version of Highwood.

- Gtd

Gregory T. Doyon
City Manager
Great Falls, Montana
Office (406) 455-8450
Fax (406) 727-0005

Inter-Office Memorandum City of Great Falls, Montana


DATE: November 20, 2009

TO: Greg Doyon, ECP Board Members

FROM: Coleen Balzarini, Fiscal Services Director

SUBJECT: HGS Asset Impairment

The Southern Montana Electric G&T’s (Southern) November 2009 Board meeting was held on Friday November 20, 2009, in Billings Montana.

The results of Southern's 2008 independent financial audit were presented to the Southern Board. The independent auditor’s opinion concluded that the financial statements, prepared by Southern, and independently audited, present fairly the financial condition of Southern. A motion was made, seconded, and passed to accept the audited financial report as presented.

A financial reporting adjustment, described as an “asset impairment” was included in Southern’s 2008 audited financial statements. An “asset impairment” occurs when there is a significant decline in the service utility of a capital asset. The impairment event must be conspicuous and known, and typically will have prompted discussion by the governing board, management, and/or the media.

Earlier this year, a decision was made to cease activities related to construction of a 250 MW circulating fluidized bed (CFB) coal-fired generating facility and direct efforts towards permitting and construction of a 120 MW gas-fired generating facility instead. The gas-fired facility will serve a portion of the energy needs of Southern’s members. The balance of energy needs will be served via energy supply contracts. Therefore
, any monies previously paid out related to the CFB facility can no longer be reflected as construction of a long-lived earning asset on the balance sheets of Southern or its members.

The restatement of Electric City Power's financial statements will have the effect of moving $905,019 in historical costs paid to Southern from ECP's balance sheet to the FY 2009 operating statement. In other words, part of the booked value of an asset from prior years is now required to become an expense in FY 2009. The monies paid out in prior years were for site-selection, site-development, permitting, design, and construction.

The evaluation of the extent of the “asset impairment” was conducted in compliance with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) as described in Financial Accounting Standards (FAS) Statements 71 and 90 and the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) Statement No. 42. Two consultants with expertise in asset valuations were engaged by Southern to determine which historic costs could continue to be reflected on the balance sheet as costs related to the 120 MW gas-fired generating facility. If the analysis demonstrated that the historical costs provided value to the gas-fired facility, then the value remains as an asset on the balance sheet. Historical costs attributable to the CFB facility have no future earning potential and therefore are restated as an expense in the operating statement.

The independent auditor then conducted their own due diligence in regards to the methodology used by Southern to evaluate the asset impairment. They reviewed legal documents related to Southern’s operations to understand the legal structure, duties, and obligations of Southern to its members in relation to the asset impairment evaluation. The auditor does not disagree with the analysis and process used by Southern to determine the value of the impairment or the cost allocation of the impairment to each of its six Southern members.

It is my recommendation that ECP rely upon the analysis conducted by Southern's experts and adjust ECP's financial statements in accordance with the values determined to be applicable to the City's investment in this endeavor. It is also my recommendation that $239,485 of capitalized interest expense reflected on ECP's balance sheet also be considered an impaired asset and expensed in the same manner.

There is no additional financial impacts to the City or ECP because of this financial reporting adjustment. The rates charged to ECP customers in future periods continue to be the source of payment for these previously incurred costs.


November 19, 2009

High court hears Highwood zoning suit By KARL PUCKETT Tribune Staff Writer
HELENA — Attorneys for Cascade County and a group of landowners locked horns once more Wednesday over a 2-1 vote last year by the County Commission, which allowed construction of a power plant east of Great Falls. This time the clash came before the Montana Supreme Court.
In a surprise twist, Gary Zadick, an attorney for developer Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative, and attorney Alan McCormick, hired to represent Cascade County, told justices the disputed rezoning case is legally dead because the commission passed new countywide zoning regulations in August.
As a result, McCormick said, a Supreme Court decision would be "academic" because the lawsuit is challenging old regulations, under which the land rezoning for Highwood Generating Station was processed.
"This case is now moot," McCormick said.
The new argument, which was never raised during state District Court hearings last year because the new regulations had yet to pass, prompted immediate questions from justices.
Justice James Nelson asked that if the updated regulations render the current challenge moot, couldn't local governments always keep ahead of people who challenge rezoning requests by simply changing the zoning rules?
Justice Brian Morris questioned McCormick on why the court wasn't informed sooner about the new zoning regulations argument if it renders the case moot. McCormick said he had just learned last week that the new regulations had taken effect.
McCormick cited a Flathead County zoning case as precedent in making the argument.
The argument was flatly rejected by Roger Sullivan, the attorney for the plaintiffs — 60 landowners and the Montana Environmental Information Center.
"This controversy is still very much alive," Sullivan said.
Additionally, SME has replaced its original plans for a coal-fired power plant with a smaller, cleaner-burning natural gas facility, but Sullivan said that doesn't change the arguments. The county still erred in allowing an industrial facility — gas or coal — amidst farmland, with the decision amounting to spot zoning and special legislation for SME, he said.
MEIC and the landowners living in the vicinity of the proposed plant are asking the Supreme Court to reverse District Judge Wayne Phillips' decision upholding the county's action. Such a decision would declare the rezoning unlawful.
Landowners say their quality of life and agricultural operations are at stake in the case.
After the hearing, Kent Holtz, a plaintiff and farmer who listened from the second row, said he didn't understand all of the technical arguments, but wants farmland protected from the power plant.
"There are so many other places in the state it could be put that would not destroy productive land," Holtz said.
SME officials say a reliable source of electricity for its customers is at stake in the case.
SME, which has sunk $40 million into the power plant, purchased the property on which the plant would sit for $3 million, said Zadick. SME intervened in the case on the side of the county.
Located in a rural setting, with just seven homes within 3 miles, the site is ideal for a power plant, Zadick said, with the electricity benefiting the general public.
"Where do generating plants get built?" he asked.
SME, which provides power to five rural electric cooperatives and the city of Great Falls' utility arm, is proposing to construct a 120-megawatt, $210 million facility powered by natural gas to replace electricity it's losing as a result of canceled power contracts.
If the court overturns the county's decision to rezone, the Highwood project could be returned to county commissioners or the District Court, said Brian Hopkins, an attorney with Cascade County.
At the conclusion of Wednesday's hearing, the seven justices quickly exited without comment. A decision could take months, Hopkins said, noting the court could still ask for additional written briefs.
The courtroom was packed Wednesday with residents from Great Falls and SME representatives, who sat on opposite sides of the courtroom.
The case stems back to March 2008, when Cascade County commissioners Joe Briggs and Peggy Beltrone and then-commissioner Lance Olson voted 2-1 to rezone 668 acres of land east of Great Falls from farmland to heavy industrial. Beltrone was the sole no vote.
MEIC and the landowners later sued, with Phillips siding with the county in a decision handed down in November 2008, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court.
In the liveliest moment of a hearing fraught with zoning jargon, Sullivan, the attorney for the landowners and MEIC, left the designated podium and moved closer to the justices, pacing before them and theatrically holding up thick binders of technical zoning information and sometimes pointing to his clients in the audience.
"This is a classic case of the county making up its regulations on the fly," he said, his voice rising.
Sullivan took aim at the way in which 11 conditions proposed by SME were added to the rezoning approval. The conditions themselves are not the issue, he said, but he is concerned that they were submitted to the county two days before a public hearing on the rezoning request, not affording the public a chance to comment.
SME's Zadick countered that the 11 conditions actually benefit the general public, adding they were based on public feedback. For example, one of the conditions is that roads be maintained.
Sullivan also charged that SME submitted hundreds of pages of technical information in the 11th hour. In addition, Sullivan said, no guarantees exist in the zoning regulations, ensuring enforcement of the attached conditions.
That amounts to illegal "special legislation" for SME, Sullivan said.
Wondering aloud whether such conditions aren't just "part and parcel" of any rezoning proceeding, District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock, sitting in for the retiring Justice John Warner, who recused himself from the case, questioned the special legislation assertion.
Sullivan also said Judge Phillips erroneously concluded that a coal-fired power plant already is permitted in an agriculturally zoned area if a special use permit is granted. Sullivan said a special use permit, while allowing wind farms and electrical generation facilities, would prohibit a coal-fired power plant.
Zadick disagreed, saying special use permits allow a broad range of uses from garbage dumps to hospitals to generation facilities. But if that were the case, a justice asked Zadick, why didn't SME just ask for a special use permit in the first place instead of seeking rezoning. Zadick said that rezoning was preferred because of the type of financing the developer sought at the time.
Facing the seven justices and a digital time clock that allowed each side 30 minutes to make its case, the attorneys raised many of the same arguments Wednesday that they did at the District Court level.
"We'll just have to wait and see how the court decides," SME General Manager Tim Gregori said after the hearing. "At this time, the property we purchased is zoned appropriately for what we have planned.


November 13, 2009

Environmental groups want carbon costs in power plan
MISSOULA (AP) — Environmental groups are asking Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer to push for changes in a pending regional power plan so that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council is considering a 20-year plan that would meet almost all the region’s increased power demands through energy-efficiency measures.
But environmental groups including the Sierra Club and Northern Plains Resource Council want the council to go even further — pegging the cost for carbon emissions at almost $50 per ton.
Their aim is to discourage the burning of coal. Coal supplies half the nation’s electricity but also emits large quantities of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change. The power council, an agency of Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, advises the region’s largest electricity supplier — the Bonneville Power Administration


November 11, 2009

EPA study finds toxic chemicals in fish tissue in all 50 states By JOHN S. ADAMS Tribune Capitol Bureau
HELENA — A new federal Environmental Protection Agency study shows concentrations of toxic chemicals in fish tissue from lakes and reservoirs in nearly all 50 states, though those levels aren't considered dangerous in the Montana lakes tested.
According to the agency, the study marks the first time the EPA has been able to estimate the percentage of lakes and reservoirs nationwide that have fish containing potentially harmful levels of chemicals such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The study sampled predator and bottom-feeding fish from 500 randomly selected lakes and reservoirs across the nation, including 16 in Montana. The EPA didn't provide specific data on the Montana lakes sampled, however nine of the 16 lakes are on Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' sport fish consumption chart, which advises anglers on the number of fish meals they can safely eat per month. None of the Montana lakes sampled contained fish with unsafe levels of mercury or PCBs.
The data show mercury concentrations in game fish exceeding EPA's recommended levels in 49 percent of lakes and reservoirs nationwide, and PCBs in game fish "at levels of potential concern" at 17 percent of lakes and reservoirs. According to the EPA, the findings are based on a comprehensive national study that used more data on levels of contamination in fish tissue than any previous study.
"These results reinforce (EPA Administrator Lisa) Jackson's strong call for revitalized protection of our nation's waterways and long-overdue action to protect the American people," Peter S. Silva, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Water, said in a statement. "EPA is aggressively tackling the issues the report highlights. Before the results were even finalized, the agency initiated efforts to further reduce toxic mercury pollution and strengthen enforcement of the Clean Water Act — all part of a renewed effort to protect the nation's health and environment."
According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, more than 30 states and two Canadian provinces currently issue advisories because of mercury contaminated freshwater fish.
Fish in Montana generally have lower levels of contamination than in other states, according to the DPHHS. Montana has been testing fish in lakes and reservoirs for contaminants since 1994. The levels of contaminants found in Montana fish are generally low, but some locations fish contained levels of contaminants that are of concern for people who those fish on a frequent or prolonged basis.
Silver Creek, a tributary of Prickly Pear Creek northwest of Helena, has been limited to catch-and-release fishing because of high concentration of contaminants in fish, but the levels of contaminants in brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout, as well as perch and small panfish, in all other bodies of water in the state are considered low, according to the DPHHS' Montana Sport Fish Consumption Guidelines. The guidelines state that the most common Montana game fish species average less than 0.15 parts per million of methyl mercury. By comparison, commercially available canned tuna averages 0.17 to 0.20 parts per million of methyl mercury. That is a higher level of methyl mercury than virtually any rainbow trout or Kokanee salmon in Montana lakes and reservoirs, according to state officials.
EPA officials said the burning of fossil fuels, primarily coal, accounts for nearly half of mercury air emissions caused by human activity in the country, adding that those emissions are a significant contributor to mercury in bodies of water.
Agency officials said the emission of mercury into the air decreased by 58 percent from 1990 through 2005. The EPA is in the process of developing a new rule to reduce mercury emissions from power plants, and the Obama administration is actively supporting a new international agreement that would reduce mercury emissions worldwide.
According to the EPA, the health risk of consuming mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern for most people. However, some fish contain high levels of mercury that can harm the developing nervous system of unborn babies and young children. The agency advises pregnant women or those who may become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children to avoid eating some types of fish.


November 11, 2009

Project aims to turn irrigation ditch into power By KARL PUCKETT Tribune Staff Writer
An $11 million hydroelectric facility that will harness flows from an irrigation canal in the same way power is tapped from rivers is planned west of Fairfield, with NorthWestern Energy lined up to buy the electricity.
The Turnbull Hydroelectric Project, which will produce 13 megawatts of electricity, will be constructed 4 miles west of Fairfield on the Spring Valley Canal in the Greenfields Irrigation District. That district distributes water from the Sun River to farmers and ranchers, said hydroelectric engineer Ted Sorenson of Idaho Falls.
Turnbull Hydro LLC, which is building the facility, is a joint venture of Sorenson, rancher Wade Jacobsen and the Greenfields Irrigation District.
The 13 megawatts is enough electricity to power 8,000 to 10,000 homes. Most of the power probably will be used in the immediate vicinity, he said.
"All of Fairfield will be energized from this power," Sorenson said.
When the project is finished, Turnbull will be considered a "summer peaker" because it will provide power when water and air conditioner use is high. The system will operate during irrigation season from May to September. Construction is scheduled to begin in fall 2010.
Using irrigation canals to generate electricity at times of peak demand is common in Idaho and California, but the Greenfield's project is the first Sorenson knows of in Montana.
"It's a new application of old technology," said Sorenson, who was the project engineer on a 7.5-megawatt hydroelectric project completed at Tiber Dam in 2004.
Separate generating facilities will be placed at two concrete canal "drops," or flumes, known as Upper Turnbull and Lower Turnbull, along the Spring Valley Canal.
Upper Turnbull is 1,100 feet long and drops 100 feet, while the 2,600-foot Lower Turnbull descends 140 feet. The flumes carry water from Pishkun Reservoir across steep declines.
"They're kind of like a big waterslide," Sorenson said.
Pipelines parallel to each flume will divert the water. As the water descends through the contained pipelines, the resulting pressure will be captured at the bottom of the flumes with turbines, which will convert it into electricity.
It's the same concept as having a tank of water in the attic of a home that produces good faucet pressure on the main floor, Sorenson said. Energy from the flumes, which were constructed in 1928, is going to waste right now, Sorenson said.
The diverted water will be returned to the canal system without disrupting delivery to producers, Sorenson said.
NorthWestern Energy, which provides electricity and natural gas to 656,000 customers in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, announced Tuesday that it had signed a 20-year contract with Turnbull to purchase the power.
NorthWestern spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch said the company requested bids for renewable energy supply agreements a year ago, then reached a deal with Turnbull after a lengthy negotiation.
"This particular project is very cost effective, very favorable to customers," she said.
The green power will help NorthWestern meet the state's renewable energy standards, which require public utilities to procure a minimum of 10 percent of their retail sales of electricity from renewable resources by 2010, and 15 percent by 2015, Rapkoch said.


November 11, 2009

Baucus votes no on climate change bill despite support By LEDYARD KING Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — When Sen. Max Baucus cast the lone vote against a climate-change bill proposed by fellow Democrats last week, it seemed like bad news to those who want something done about global warming.
Not so, Montana's senior Democrat said. He just wants it done right.
"I am committed to passing meaningful, balanced climate-change legislation," Baucus said Tuesday during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the impact that such a bill would have on the economy. "I want our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the outdoors the way that we can today."
Baucus said he disagrees with the bill's Democratic sponsors — Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts — that the country needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are believed by scientists to contribute to climate change, by 20 percent. He believes a 17 percent reduction is reasonable, with a trigger of up to 20 percent "if other countries played by the same rules."
He also doesn't believe the current proposal is as fair as it could be to agriculture, an energy-intensive industry crucial to Montana's economy.
Though Baucus is not willing to go as far as some of his more liberal colleagues, his willingness to move on a bill is welcomed by environmentalists.
"I really believe that as the Finance Committee fully weighs the benefits of passing comprehensive legislation with a strong cap on carbon — including looking at the net job increases and benefits to consumers, farmers and businesses, which far outweigh the costs of inaction — he will make the right decision," said Beth Berlin, Montana representative for Climate Solutions, which advocates for clean-energy initiatives in the Pacific Northwest.
Conversely, opponents of the bill view the senator's vote as a sign of support for their side. The vote "sent a powerful message that the bill could have serious consequences for Montana's businesses and consumers, and for our country's energy security," the Montana Petroleum Association wrote in an electronic newsletter issued Tuesday.
As Finance Committee chairman, Baucus spent the past few months cobbling together a coalition of senators on health care reform. It's a role he could reprise on the equally thorny issue of climate change, which has split Congress along partisan and regional lines.
Under a proposed system dubbed "cap and trade," energy producers would have limits on what they can emit, but could pay extra to emit more pollutants under a market-driven system that determines prices. Critics say Montana consumers would face higher energy prices, at least in the short term, largely because nearly two-thirds of the state's electricity is generated by coal, one of the main greenhouse gas producers. The national average of energy generated by burning coal is 49 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In addition, there are concerns about how a cap-and-trade system might affect Montana's important coal industry, though supporters of climate-change legislation say the state stands to benefit because of its plentiful supply of renewable energy, such as wind, solar and biofuels.
Baucus said he sees the environmental degradation caused by climate change as he travels Big Sky Country: trees destroyed by pine beetles drawn to warmer climates, the increasing frequency of droughts and forest fires, a decreasing snowpack and lower stream flows.
"These are serious consequences," he said. "And I believe that we can mitigate their effects in a way that does not harm the economy."


November 11, 2009

Electric City Power report delayed
A consultant’s report on the city of Great Falls’ electric utility, Electric City Power, has yet to be released.
City Manager Greg Doyon said Tuesday that the report was not available. He added he would rather the report be thorough than be rushed and incomplete. Doyon said he planned to call the consultants, Burns & McDonnell of Kansas City, Mo., soon to check on the report’s progress. He said that a lot of additional information was provided to the consultants in recent weeks in order to help them finish the report. The consultants originally said they thought the report could be completed in late September, with Doyon saying another possible completion date is today. No new target date has been set for the report’s release


November 6, 2009

Power line would ship power south
Tonbridge Power Inc. announced Friday it has entered into an agreement with wind power developer Gaelectric North America Inc. to begin feasibility work on a major new transmission line in Montana.
Toronto-based Tonbridge already is developing the Montana Alberta Tie Line between Great Falls and Lethbridge, Alberta. Gaelectric is based in Ireland but has an office in Great Falls.
With MATL successfully financed and under construction, Johan van’t Hof, Tonbridge’s chief executive officer, said Tonbridge is now working on a new 100-mile transmission line between Great Falls and the Townsend area called the “Green Line.”
If it’s built, it would relieve congestion for southbound electricity flows by, in effect, extending the MATL line south to interconnect with the Colstrip transmission line, Tonbridge said. Wind developers have purchased the southbound capacity on the MATL line. The proposed Green Line would connect the MATL transmission line at Great Falls with Bonneville Power Administration’s 500-kilovolt Colstrip transmission line near Townsend or Garrison. The Colstrip line is the major electricity highway running east to west out of Montana enabling renewable energy and other power to reach load centers in the Pacific Northwest region. Tonbridge would allocate at least 500 megawatts of transmission capacity to Gaelectric, which would become an anchor shipper, in return for payment of development costs. It would receive its development contributions back through contracted transmission tariff reductions in the future, the company said. Gaelectric is active in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and North America where it operates regional development offices including in Great Falls.


Baucus votes no on climate-change bill, but says he supports the effort
MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau | Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2009 5:30 pm

HELENA - Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., was the only Democrat Thursday to vote against a climate-change bill that Democrats rammed through a Senate committee - but he said he still supports the effort to limit greenhouse gases causing global warming and pass a bill.
"I am committed to passing meaningful, balanced climate-change legislation - legislation that will protect our land and those whose livelihood depends on it," he said in a statement before his vote.
Montana spokesmen for a pair of mainstream conservation groups also said Thursday they believe Baucus wants to get a meaningful bill passed, and don't find his vote troubling.
"Groups that have been working on the bill understand that today's vote was just a step in the process, and we know that Sen. Baucus is working hard to pass strong climate-change legislation in the Senate," said Tom France of Missoula, regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation.
"I understand that it was important for (Baucus) to address some of the issues he wanted to address in the bill," said Chuck Magraw, a Helena attorney representing the Natural Resource Defense Council.
Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 11-1 on Thursday to approve the bill, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sending it to the Senate floor.
Republicans on the panel boycotted the vote, saying they wanted more time to fully examine the bill's impact and cost.
Boxer already had delayed the vote for several days and said the Republican demands for more analysis were "duplicative and a waste of taxpayer dollars."
While the bill advances to the full Senate, supporters acknowledged that it will need 60 votes to break an expected Republican filibuster and said Thursday's vote is one step in what's expected to be a long, contentious road for the bill, which is one of the Obama administration's top priorities.
The measure would limit emissions that cause global warming, like carbon dioxide.
It also creates a system to limit emissions known as "cap and trade," allowing polluters to exceed emission caps if they buy enough credits from nonpolluting industries or sources that take actions to reduce emissions.
While Democrats moved the bill forward, the Republican boycott prevented the committee from taking up any amendments.
Baucus said he believes the current bill's goal of reducing global warming gases 20 percent by 2020 may be too ambitious, and wanted to amend it to 17 percent, with a trigger to go to 20 percent if other countries adopt similar measures.
"While I am voting 'no' on this particular bill, let me be crystal clear," he said. "As a member of the (Environment) and Agriculture committees, and most importantly as a Montanan who wants our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the outdoors the way we can today, I'm going to work to get climate-change legislation that can get 60 votes, get through the U.S. Senate and signed into law."
Baucus also mentioned that he sees the effect of global warming in Montana, such as forests being ravaged by pine-beetle infestation, sustained drought and increased wildfires.
Montana's other U.S. senator, Democrat Jon Tester, said he has concerns about the bill, too, such as trading energy "credits" under the cap-and-trade system like commodities.
"I have real problems with putting folks on Wall Street in charge of our energy security, given their record over the past few years," he said in a statement. "I want a plan that protects and creates jobs across Montana and rural America and strengthens our national and economic security by harnessing the potential of clean, homegrown energy."

November 5, 2009

Newly elected could shake up city's direction By RICHARD ECKE Tribune Staff Writer
Expect more animated Great Falls City Commission meetings beginning the first week of January, when its new members will be sworn into office.
"We have three new people now," said a cheerful City Commissioner Mary Jolley, the commission's most frequent dissenter.
The biggest surprise in Tuesday's results may have been Michael Winters' wide margin of victory in the mayor's race over Commissioner Bill Bronson.
"I thought it would be close," Winters said on election night. The retired postmaster, who helped found the Montana Veterans Memorial in Great Falls, won with 58 percent of the vote to 40 percent for attorney Bronson, nearly a 3 to 2 margin.
Bronson retained his seat as commissioner.
Retired Great Falls Police Chief Bob Jones, who won a seat on the City Commission, said he believes the city is fairly well run. However, Jones did express some concern over large debts created by the city's electric energy venture.
If Bronson and Jones are fairly well disposed toward city government, the top vote getter in the commission race was auctioneer Fred Burow, who often rapped the city during the campaign.
Burow notably criticized the city for raising property taxes on individuals by 28 percent from 2003 to 2008, an average annual increase of 4.7 percent, and he questioned the city's spending on its Electric City Power utility.
Jolley, who was first elected along with Bronson in 2007, said she recruited Burow to run for commissioner. Jolley has frequently criticized the city's energy efforts and its investment in a proposed coal-fired power plant, which has since changed its proposed fuel source to natural gas.
"Fred has one of the best memories of anyone I know," Jolley said. She added that she expects Burow may see eye-to-eye with her on a number of issues.
"I think 4-1 votes will become less common," Jolley said.
Flanked by two commissioners on each side in the Commission Chambers will be Winters, who will run city meetings and represent the city at ceremonial events. Under the city's form of government, the mayor also gets a vote on the five-member commission.
Winters was somewhat critical of the city during the campaign, but it will take some time to determine whether he will become a swing vote on major city issues such as whether the city should continue with ECP, or continue its relationship with developers of the Highwood Generating Station.
During the campaign, Winters said he was not opposed to industry, and thought a coal-fired Highwood Generating Station might have been able to attract federal grants for carbon-capture technology.
Jolley believes the new commission will be especially tuned in to how the city spends its money.
Ron Gessaman of Great Falls, who frequently speaks at City Commission meetings, said he believes voters were disenchanted with existing city policies.
Outgoing Commissioner Bill Beecher, who did not run for re-election, said he believes voters were concerned about the economy and opted for new faces.
"I was surprised," Beecher said. "I think it reflects what obviously went on nationally."
Split vote theory
Tuesday's election returns might have surprised some residents, given that the primary leaders were Bronson, Jones and incumbent Commissioner John Rosenbaum.
Bronson and Jolley each mentioned a theory that might explain the result — that of the split vote.
During the primary, a large group of candidates who were critics of city government, may have siphoned votes away from each other.
But in the general election, when voters had fewer candidates from which to choose, disaffected voters gravitated toward those remaining candidates who were more skeptical of city government.
"That is what happened," Jolley said. "The people who were going to vote for Bronson, Jones and Rosenbaum did. The goal of Fred and Donna (Zook) was to pick up those (other voters)."
That theory also might explain the results of the mayoral race. Winters gained about 4,100 votes from the primary to the general election. In the mayoral primary, 3,652 voters cast ballots for city critics who lost.
The split vote idea also might have applied on the commissioners' side, although voting was tighter in the commissioners' race. Burow won the most votes with 26 percent, followed by Jones with 25 percent, Zook finished third with nearly 24 percent, and Rosenbaum finished last among the four candidates with 19 percent of the vote.
City critics Kathleen Z. Gessaman and Ed McKnight combined for nearly 5,400 votes in losing bids for commissioner during the primary.
Ron Gessaman, whose wife was the primary candidate, is not convinced by the split-vote theory. He offered a less complex scenario Wednesday.
"More people voted this time," he said. "It looks like those people went for change."
Unofficial final turnout in the city of Great Falls general election was 14,713 voters, or 53 percent of active city voters, compared with 46 percent in the primary.
General election turnout among all city voters, including inactive voters, was 42 percent.


November 3, 2009

Winters tops Bronson for city mayor; Burow, Jones claim commission seats

Newcomers took all three seats Tuesday night in the Great Falls city general election.
Michael Winters, founder of the Montana Veterans Memorial, defeated Commissioner Bill Bronson in the mayor’s race. On the commissioners’ side, auctioneer Fred Burow and retired police chief Robert Jones defeated incumbent John Rosenbaum and Donna Zook. During the campaign, Burow and Zook had roundly criticized the City Commission for debts run up by the city’s electric utility, and for raising property taxes on individual property owners by nearly 5 percent each year from 2003 to 2008. Winters also had criticized city officials for the city’s tight financial picture and for failing to involve citizens in energy decisions. Bronson argued he was best suited to run city meetings and represent the city at ceremonial events, while Rosenbaum pointed to improvements made in Great Falls during his 14 years as commissioner.
Here are the preliminary unofficial vote totals:
MAYOR MICHAEL WINTERS, 8,430 votes BILL BRONSON, 5,759 votes

FRED BUROW, 7,629 votes ROBERT JONES, 7,256 votes DONNA ZOOK, 6,805 votes JOHN ROSENBAUM, 5,442 votes

An Important Message From CCE's Communications Manager

Hello All,

I was able to attend a presentation on mountaintop removal coal mining which is currently taking place in four states in central Appalachia. I was left with a sense of disbelief that such wanton destruction of the environment as well as the horrendous effects on the local populations could even be tolerated in this country.

The presenters were here to ask for our help in persuading Senators Baucus and Tester to cosponsor the Clean Water Protection Act, H.R. 1310. This bill is critical for stopping the dumping of mining waste into adjacent valleys from mountaintop removal coal mining. Support from our senators is crucial to getting this legislation passed.

The intent of this act is to clarify that fill material cannot be comprised of mining waste. Passing this legislation would protect all the nation's rivers, streams, and lakes from being used as garbage dumps for mining waste. It would also help end the destruction of the Appalachian Mountains.

You can contact Senators Baucus and Tester in one of three ways:

Write a short note asking for their support of this bill to:
Sen. Max Baucus Sen. Jon Tester
113 3rd St. North 119 1st Ave. North Suite 102
Great Falls, Mt. 59401 Great Falls, MT. 59401

Sample Note: (include your address so they can send you a reply)

Dear Senator -----------------------

I am writing to ask you to become a cosponsor of the Clean Water Protection Act, H.R. 1310. Please help stop the devastation caused by the dumping of mining waste into the rivers and streams of Appalachia. This would also help protect all of our nation's rivers, streams, and lakes from being used as dumping grounds for mining waste.

Please join the many other representatives who have sponsored this crucial piece of legislation.

Thank you,

You can also call the local office of Senator Baucus at 761-1574, and Sen Tester at 452-9585.

You can e-mail Sen Baucus at and Sen. Tester at

Thank you for helping!
Jeff Monheim.

October 27, 2009

Kerry: US leadership at stake in climate debate

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senators tussled over the cost of climate legislation Tuesday with the leading author of the bill maintaining that while energy prices will increase, inaction on global warming would cause even worse economic and security problems.

“Are there some costs? Yes sir, there are some costs,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.. But of the array of studies that show restricting greenhouse gases will lead to higher energy prices, he said, “none of them factor in the cost of doing nothing.”

Kerry was the leadoff witness as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee began a series of marathon hearings this week on a bill that would cap greenhouse gas pollution from power plants and large industrial facilities. The bill aims to reduce emissions 80 percent by mid-century. Kerry is an author of the legislation.

Republican members of the panel were in lock step in their criticism of the so-called “cap-and-trade” legislation, characterizing it as a huge energy tax on average Americans.

“Cap and trade is very expensive. This is something the American people can’t tolerate and I don’ think they will,” said Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the panel’s ranking Republican and a vocal skeptic of climate chance science.

But Kerry said it has long been shown that voluntary action has not contained the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are being trapped in the atmosphere. Those gases are causing a dangerous warming of the earth, according to many climate scientists.

“Not taking action is more expensive,” said Kerry. He said a curb on fossil fuel use will lead to clean energy jobs and allow the United States to develop new technologies that otherwise would likely be developed by other countries including China.

“America’s leadership is on the line here,” Kerry said.

Top Obama administration officials sounded a similar theme in their testimony before the committee.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said if the United states does not develop and produce clean energy technologies — from wind turbines to next-generation batteries and solar cells — “China and other countries will.” He said enactment of climate legislation is the “critical step (that) will drive investment decisions toward clean energy” in the United States.

“Only new legislation can bring about the comprehensive and integrated changes that are needed to restore America’s economic health and keep the nation secure over the long term,” added EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

But even some Democrats have reservations about the bill assembled by Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee chairman.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he had “serious reservations” about the bill’s aggressive effort to cut emissions over the next decade. The bill calls for greenhouse gases to be cut by 20 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels and 43 percent by 2030.

“Montana can’t afford the unmitigated impacts of climate change,” Baucus acknowledged. “But we also cannot afford the unmitigated effects of climate change legislation.” While the state is a producer and user of coal, it also has seen early effects of a warming trend, including loss of glaciers and the destruction of pine trees from a warmer weather beetle infestation.

Republicans complained that Boxer, who hopes to have a vote on the bill in early November, is trying to push the bill through without adequate study into its cost.

“Why are we trying to jam down this legislation now? Wouldn’t it be smarter to take our time and do it right,” said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. He said it is still unclear how the legislation would affect the price, reliability and supply of electricity or whether it would make a dent in the global warming problem since it is a global environmental concern.

But Kerry said the climate debate has been under way for 20 years and requires urgency. “The science is pleading us to take action,” he said.


Western states' lawmakers stress energy cooperation at forum

Associated Press | Posted: Monday, October 26, 2009 6:25 am

JACKSON, Wyo. - State lawmakers from around the West are gathering in the northern Wyoming resort town of Jackson over the next few days to figure out how to get better coordinated on energy issues. Many are also interested in showing a united front as Congress considers bills that could put a damper on the nation's longterm appetite for coal.

Wyoming has put up more than $400,000 to fund the Western States Energy and Environment Symposium. Organizers say about 75 state lawmakers from around the West are attending.

Wyoming, the leading coal-producing state in the nation, has a keen interest in legislation pending in Congress aimed at tackling global warming. The Senate is set to debate this week a bill intended to cut greenhouse gases by about 80 percent by 2050.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., told the state lawmakers he's concerned about projections that the pending federal legislation will cut jobs in Wyoming and elsewhere in the West.

"I'm in favor of the green jobs, but I'm also in favor of the red, white and blue jobs that we have right now in the Rocky Mountains," Barrasso said.

"Cap and trade will not keep energy affordable, and will weaken our economy," Barrasso said. The term "cap and trade" refers to a system that would allow companies to buy and sell permits to pollute.

Ted Boyer, a member of the Utah Public Service Commission, said in an interview that it appears bills pending in both the Senate and House would hurt western states that depend on coal-fired plans for the bulk of their power.

Boyer said he hopes western states can work together to reduce the risks of a cap and trade program.

Boyer said western states all have different energy resource portfolios. Wyoming, for example, has developed abundant natural gas and coal, and increasingly, wind power. States in the Southwest have solar resources, while those in the Northwest have hydropower, he said.

"If we can move more cooperatively, and use those resources on a regional basis, it seems to me that we can as a region, comply with whatever regime is imposed on us without drastic, catastrophic costs," Boyer said.

Edward Randolph, chief policy consultant to the California State Assembly's Committee on Utilities and Commerce, is representing his state. A special budget session prevented California lawmakers from attending.

Randolph said California law prohibits utilities in that state from signing new long-term contracts for electricity generated from burning coal. Even so, he said California sees value in the symposium.

"The other states potentially have markets for wind power, for solar power, for geothermal power, and in some cases, some natural gas," Randolph said. "So even without coal, a lot of the western states have some resources that I think we could use in the future.

"On the flip side, I think we're going to have some resources in the future that we expect to export to other western states as well. The prime spots for solar are all in California," Randolph said.

"Everybody wants their lights to stay on, but nobody wants a transmission line built anywhere near their house," Randolph said. "So you get into the standard fights of everybody thinking that over the next ridge line is the best place for a transmission line. Which has made siting and permitting a very difficult process."

October 26, 2009

City candidates clash over taxes

Tribune Staff Writer

Great Falls city government increased property taxes by 28 percent over six years, from 2003 to 2008.

That's a 4.67 percent average annual increase. For the owner of an actual house in the city worth $170,200, city property taxes increased by $13.45 for the 2004 tax year, and by $10.65 this tax year.

To City Commission candidate Fred Burow that's a large increase. Burow's campaign assistant, Travis Kavulla, called the successive increases "outrageous," and said the city has been "spending recklessly."

City Commissioner Bill Bronson, who is seeking the mayor's seat, said he believes the increases have been pretty minimal.

"We haven't been spending recklessly or wildly," Bronson said. "The actual tax increases per year have been fairly modest."

"What's modest?" asked Michael Winters, Bronson's opponent in the mayor's race. He added that sitting commissioners should know exactly what's in the budget.

Nov. 3 will mark the end of the city of Great Falls' general election campaign, as voters choose two commissioners to serve four years each, and a mayor to serve a two-year term.

Aside from angst over city spending on energy ventures this decade, another substantial issue to emerge after two October candidate forums is taxes.

The issue, which emerged at two candidates' forums Oct. 14 and Oct. 21, was first raised by Kavulla in a question from the audience, and punctuated by Burow, who held up a copy of the city's budget in answering the query.

City general election ballots were mailed Oct. 19, and 3,593 voters had returned them through Friday, according to the Cascade County Elections Office. That appears to be a brisker pace than for ballots mailed prior to the Sept. 15 primary election, said Kandy Sonsteng, deputy county election administrator. Both the primary and general city elections are mail-only.

Focus on figures

The original question by Kavulla, a Great Falls blogger and freelance writer, was, "Taxes have increased 44 percent over five years. What can we do to keep spending low?"

Kavulla said he took the figure from a city document listing the dollar amount of city mill levies from the tax years 2003 through 2008. The city took in $11,714,330 in property taxes in 2008, up 44 percent from $8,122,355 levied in 2003.

At the first forum, incumbents Bronson and John Rosenbaum doubted the figure. Bronson suggested that the 44 percent included growth in the city tax base over the period, and did not translate directly into tax increases for individual property owners.

At the next forum, Burow acknowledged Bronson's point.

"Your taxes didn't increase 44 percent," Burow said.

However, Burow said Saturday that the 44 percent figure is accurate in terms of total revenues.

"The whole revenue picture is up that much," he said. "I'll stand by it.

"I'm just going off of the city's own budget," he added.

The city's budget officer, Melissa Kinzler, produced figures at the request of the Tribune of four actual houses in the city to illustrate how much city taxes increased during the period in question.

The figures on the four Great Falls homes showed city property taxes rose 27.6 percent from 2003 to 2008, which rounds to a 28 percent average increase in city taxes for those homes.

The 28 percent figure is close to how much the city's actual mill levies increased from 2003 to 2008 — 30.9 percent. A mill, which is technically one-tenth of a cent, is a device commonly used by local governments in property tax calculations.

Following the forums, Rosenbaum later criticized Burow and Kavulla for not pointing out that a small slice of the city's property tax increases were prompted by special voter-approved taxes for swimming pool renovations and the new eastside soccer park. When not including the taxes for the pool and soccer projects, the city's mill levies rose by 25.4 percent from 2003 to 2008.

Great Falls' tax base grew by 8.2 percent from 2003 to 2008, from $2.237 billion to $2,419 billion. Growth from 2003 to 2009 was an even higher 11.7 percent, to $2,498 billion in 2009.

However, Kavulla said the city property tax increases outpaced the rise in property values.

Still, an element of confusion over the tax figures remained at Wednesday night's candidate forum.

"I think we're getting taxes mixed up with revenue gained from taxes," commissioner candidate Bob Jones said. "I think we're talking about two different things here."

Jones, the city's retired police chief, could not be reached Friday or Saturday to elaborate on his views on the city's property tax levels.

By week's end, there were fewer denials that city property taxes levied against individual property owners increased about 28 percent from 2003 to 2008.

Rosenbaum, who had been skeptical about both figures at the candidate forums, said Friday morning that he had not had a chance to research the numbers, while Burow criticized the incumbent commissioner.

"I think he should know better," Burow said of Rosenbaum. "He's been there for 14 years."

Bronson emphasized that the 28 percent increase was over six years, not just one.

"The impression that somebody gets is our taxes are going up 28 percent," he said.

Bronson also defended his and Rosenbaum's initial skepticism over the numbers.

"I don't think anybody's been evasive at all," he said.

So why did the city of Great Falls increase taxes by an average of between 4 and 5 percent each year from 2003 to 2008?

Rosenbaum cited the higher cost of tires, vehicle fuel, heating fuel and health insurance as primary factors.

"Inflation is a real factor that we have to deal with," he said.

Bronson said the city has tried to "hold the line" on its budget.

"But we don't want to sacrifice basic services, either," he said.

Rosenbaum and Bronson both said the city's highest expense is personnel costs, with city employees receiving 3 percent-plus raises the last few years. Some groups of employees received larger boosts than that in recent years.

"That's especially true with respect to the police," Bronson said.

He and Rosenbaum added that the city needs to offer salaries that are competitive with those offered by other Montana cities.

Commissioner candidate Donna Zook, a forensic psychologist, could not be reached for comment Friday or Saturday. She has criticized city government for wasting money on its electrical energy venture, contending that money could have been used for police and fire protection instead.

Burow, an auctioneer, wants city government to be more tight-fisted.

"We need to pull spending back in line," Burow said. "The city is just continually increasing (spending)."

He added that he believes dollars and cents will have a big effect on next week's election.

Rosenbaum said he believes the city must continue doing its best to maintain its roads and infrastructure, retain personnel and provide services the public expects.

"The criticizers and negative people have got their own agenda," the contractor added.

Meanwhile, Winters said the property tax issue has become a political football.

"This is political jargon that's going on now," the mayoral candidate said. Winters said challengers are trying to score political points with the tax issue, while incumbents "are naturally going to justify whatever increases came about."

He promised to pay close attention to budget figures if he is elected.

Bronson, an attorney, said his stance on property taxes will depend upon the state of the economy and other factors.

"In terms of the future, a lot's going to depend on the cost of living," Bronson said.


October 23, 2009

Candidates share ideas at VisionXpo on how to keep city great

Tribune Staff Writer

Great Falls City Commission and mayoral candidates shared their visions for the city's future, which ranged from improving residents' attitudes about the city to making Great Falls a renewable energy hub, Thursday evening at a candidate forum.

The event, hosted by Great Falls VisionXpo, a Leadership Great Falls program, was a "café style" forum where candidates sat at tables and attendees rotated from table to table, engaging in conversations.

"The focus is on cross-pollination, on listening and sharing," event organizer Al Henry said.

All of the candidates were asked three questions: What makes Great Falls great? What keeps Great Falls from becoming greater? and What would help make Great Falls greater in the next 10 years?

The Leadership Great Falls class of 2008-09, a program run by the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, has begun a grassroots visioning process, with the goal of asking people from all sectors of the community what their vision is for the city.

Mayoral candidate Michael Winters believes Great Falls sometimes lacks unity and leadership.

"There's nothing that holds us back except us," he said. "We have to promote us. We can't compare ourselves with Billings or Bozeman, or other communities in Montana."

Winters said Great Falls should capitalize on the fact that it's 100 miles from any other major city and can be a destination for people in the smaller nearby communities.

"We have to develop interest in our community to make people want to come here," he said.

City Commissioner Bill Bronson, who is running for mayor, said Great Falls residents often take some of the city's assets for granted.

"The locals, we don't talk enough about the good things that we have going on here," he said.

Bronson also emphasized the importance of bringing everyone to the table to craft a solution for Great Falls' problems and its future.

Commission candidate Donna Zook's vision of the city is for it to become a renewable energy hub — not just for wind, but solar and geothermal as well. Montana State University—Great Falls College of Technology could become a nationally known teaching center for renewable energy and Malmstrom Air Force Base could be a research center, she said.

Creating a community that will retain its children and allow them to raise families here is important to Great Falls, said commission candidate Bob Jones.

Great Falls also could capitalize on the seven nearby dams and refurbish all of them, he said.

Sitting city commissioner John Rosenbaum, who is running for re-election, said he thinks creating a strong work force in the Electric City will help draw more private investment.

Rather than using tax incentives to draw businesses here, the city could attract them with a large pool of potential employees, he said.

Commission candidate Fred Burow said he thought Thursday's event was a good example of how city government should get more residents to participate in decision making.

He would like to establish more working groups in Great Falls to help provide feedback to elected officials and city staff.

The VisionXpo group will continue to collect residents' visions for the community throughout the fall and winter. Those visions will be presented at an expo-style event April 17 at the Civic Center.

Additional Facts
Have an idea?

Leadership Great Falls has launched a blog to gather residents' thoughts about the city. Answers will be compiled and displayed at the Civic Center in April 2010 for the Great Falls VisionXpo. Visit greatfallsvisionxpo.blogspot. com to comment.


October 22, 2009

Candidates debate secrecy, taxes

Tribune Staff Writer

Cooler heads prevailed at a Great Falls candidates' forum at the Civic Center on Tuesday night.

But that didn't prevent four candidates for two open City Commission seats from clashing over secrecy in government, a new animal shelter and city property tax increases in front of about 35 spectators.

Fred Burow and Donna Zook, who finished third and fourth in the primary, respectively, filled the role of challengers, showing much more skepticism toward city government. Top vote-getters Bob Jones and John Rosenbaum were less critical of the city; Jones is the retired Great Falls Police chief and Rosenbaum is seeking a fourth commission term.

All of the candidates promised to listen to the public, if elected.

"I think everybody's opinion is worth something," Burow said.

All four candidates offered to bolster the Great Falls Police and Fire/Rescue departments. Rosenbaum and Jones said the city will hire four new community policing officers this year through three years of federal COPS grants. The city must pick up the full cost of the four officers' salaries for a fourth year.

However, none of the candidates said exactly how they would pay for additional staffing for the police and fire agencies.

Secrecy surrounding city meetings and documents was a sore point among at least one member of the audience, who asked why the city was keeping some documents secret. The audience members also claimed the city has held "secret votes."

Zook jumped on that question, referring to a so-called black box in which the city has placed documents related to its energy ventures and a proposed power plant east of Great Falls. Those records, which the city will not release, are the subject of a lawsuit.

"The first thing I intend to do is get into that secret box," Zook said. "I will make that knowledge available to the public. If I have to have a press conference, I will."

Burow also rapped the city for not being more open.

"Their records are supposed to be open to the public for public review," Burow said.

He added that when government starts to keep secrets, it fuels a lot of speculation.

Jones skirted the issue, saying only, "I don't want to go backwards. I want to go forwards."

Rosenbaum said the city is waiting for a state District Court judge to decide what documents the city should release as public. Until then, "we could be sued over it" if the city released papers containing trade secrets.

On the subject of a new animal shelter and animal control, Zook wants all parties to "sit down as adults" and settle the issue. She also suggested that city police officers not be involved in animal control.

Burow said he wants to see animal control back in private hands for economic reasons, but he would like Cascade County to help out.

Rosenbaum said the city plans to do animal control, while the Animal Foundation would handle pet adoptions.

Jones said he believes the animal control budget can be brought back into line, and that issues can be resolved.

Candidates also were somewhat skeptical about the South Arterial — a proposed bypass road south of Great Falls.

Burow suggested officials take another look at a north roadway "rather than going through a high-priced neighborhood" south of town near the Missouri River.

Jones said the tricky part of either route would be land acquisition.

Rosenbaum said the road's original goal of attracting truck traffic has shifted more toward use by local traffic.

Zook suggested focusing on Great Falls' Northwest Bypass, rather than building a new one.

A running debate on city property taxes continued from an Oct. 21 forum. Burow said city taxes have risen 44 percent by one measure, and 28 percent by another, over a recent six-year span.

Rosenbaum questioned how annual inflationary increases of less than 2 percent could add up to 28 percent, but Burow stood by his figures.

Scheduling conflicts for mayoral candidates kept the forum a commissioner-only affair. Two members of the Great Falls High School debate team kept time. The debate team also accepted the questions for the forum and was in charge of interpreting rules.

Aaron Weissman, Neighborhood Council No. 7 chairman, was moderator of the event, which was sponsored by the city's nine neighborhood councils.


October 21, 2009

High court will hear rezoning argument for Highwood plant

Tribune Staff Writer

The Montana Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments next month in a Cascade County rezoning case involving construction of a power plant east of Great Falls.

Participants said the outcome of the land-use controversy could have consequences beyond just construction of the proposed Highwood Generating Station, which prompted the legal battle.

"I think this is a case that has statewide significance and the Supreme Court sees the importance of this case," said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

The MEIC and 60 landowners with property in the vicinity of the proposed plant are challenging the county's March 2008 decision to rezone 668 acres of farmland, a move requested by power plant developer Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative.

Landowners and MEIC are arguing the rezoning to heavy industrial was illegal spot zoning because the industrial plant would be significantly different from the prevailing agricultural uses in the area. They say the decision amounted to special legislation for SME.

Cascade County and SME, which has intervened in the case on behalf of the county, have denied those claims. A District Court judge sided with the developer and county in May, prompting the appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"It was pretty much anticipated that would happen, and it did," said Brian Hopkins, a civil attorney for Cascade County.

In ruling on the case, justices could give guidance to local governments on what they consider spot zoning in a rural environment and on rezoning cases in which approvals are subject to conditions, Hopkins said. Cascade County's approval of the rezoning for the Highwood plant was subject to conditions.

Oral arguments are scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 18.

"The fact they've ordered up a hearing is something that they do with only a small percentage of cases," said Roger Sullivan, an attorney for MEIC and landowners.

The court usually assigns cases to five- or seven-justice panels, which then decide cases without hearing oral arguments, he said.

"It's a good indicator this case is important beyond just the issues at hand," Hedges added.

SME, which originally planned a coal-fired plant, now is planning a natural gas facility eight miles east of Great Falls. Last week, the state Department of Environmental Quality issued an air permit for the gas-fired plant, but construction can't begin until at least Nov. 1.

Alan McCormick of Missoula is representing the county in the case.

The county has legal insurance through the Montana Association of Counties, which is paying for the balance of McCormick's services after the county paid the $10,000 deductible, Hopkins said.


Sasol CTL Facility in South Africa

Air Force Abandons Efforts To Spur CTL Development

Ben Geman, E&E senior reporter

The Air Force has quietly dropped plans to facilitate construction of
coal-to-liquids fuel plants under an effort to use domestically produced
alternative jet fuels.

In January, the Air Force rejected proposals for building a CTL plant at
Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, saying a review had found the proposals
were not viable

, Jan. 30).

Spokesman Gary Strasburg said today that the Air Force was no longer trying
to help with the development of any domestic CTL plants. "We are not
actively pursuing it," he said.

The decision represents a policy shift under the Obama administration. The
Air Force, which accounts for 10 percent of U.S. jet fuel demand, had been
seeking under the Bush administration to help drive development of a
domestic CTL market.

Potential contracts with the Air Force are viewed as a way to ensure a
market for expensive commercial-scale CTL plants, which have not been built
in the United States, although several companies have planned facilities.

Environmentalists have long opposed coal-based fuels due to their higher
greenhouse gas emissions if carbon capture and sequestration technologies --
which have yet to be commercially deployed -- are not used.

Strasburg said the Air Force maintains a goal of obtaining 50 percent of its
U.S. fuels by 2016 from domestic alternative blends that are "greener" than
conventional fuels. Such alternative fuels could include fossil sources like
coal and gas, as well as biomass-based fuels, he said.

The Air Force has already certified several planes, including the B-52, to
use 50-50 blends of synthetic and conventional jet fuel, and is testing
several others.

The Air Force and Navy are testing alternative fuels from several
feedstocks, including algae.

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