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Good wind power neighbors

Major wind power developer Pattern Development has completed its first wind farm in the wind-rich state of Montana and is off to a great start building strong community ties with its 80-MW Stillwater Wind Project.

By Diane Mettler

Just over a year ago, Pattern Development marked a big first—the completion of its first wind farm in Montana. Pattern has a long history in renewable energy, developing, financing, and placing into operation more than 4,500 MW of wind and solar power projects, but it had never gotten the opportunity to branch out into Big Sky Country.

Located in Montana's Stillwater County, this wind farm provides enough electricity each year to power about half the city of Bozeman, the state's fourth-largest city. It is definitely a win for the community. The facility is expected to produce more than $18 million in tax revenue, and the county will also receive impact fee payments over the first three years, in addition to royalty payments to participating landowners.

"In mid-2017, we purchased the project from another developer," says Michael Thompson, the project's construction manager. The 80-megawatt project was conceived in the early 2000s by four landowners who went through a series of developers before partnering with Pattern Development.

"We had a very short time frame to complete the project and bring it online in order to meet the commercial operation date commitment, so we maintained a tight schedule," adds Thompson. "Although it's a hilly project site, it was fairly straightforward from a construction point of view even though it is located within a fairly isolated location.

"There's not much around it, just dry-land ranching," he explained. "It's a great location because there is an existing NorthWestern Energy transmission line running through the middle of the project—and we straddle either side of it."

Of course, there are always issues when building wind farms, and this project was no exception. Exactly when the turbines were being delivered, a high-intensity rainfall event took place at the end of one of the wettest springs on record, which caused extensive flooding on the access routes.

"It certainly posed some challenges with the access to the site, but we managed to get through that and maintain the schedule," says Thompson.

For Pattern, an important aspect of every project is using the local labor force, when feasible. Luckily,Billings is only 40 miles away, so Pattern contracted with Dick Anderson Construction for civil and mechanical construction, EPC Services Company as the main electrical contractor, and CEI Electrical Contractors as the electrical subcontractor, all Montana-based companies.

 
Pattern Development has a long history in renewable energy, developing and placing into operation wind and solar power projects, but the Stillwater Wind Project provided the first opportunity to branch out into Big Sky Country. 
  

"It was a very successful project from that point of view," Thompson said. "It's not always easy on a wind farm in a remote location, but in this case, we were very fortunate."

All 31 wind turbines were purchased from Siemens Gamesa. Five of the turbines are 2016 PTC-qualifying 2.3-MW units with 108-meter rotors, and the remaining 26 are 2.625-MW Siemens Gamesa turbines with 120-meter rotors.

The facility interconnects to the local transmission provider's 230-kV transmission line via a newly constructed 230-kV switching station. The main power transformer (the largest piece of the substation) was supplied by HICO. The pad-mount transformers were purchased from WEC.

"We use HICO very frequently," says Thompson, "and at the time, we had just started using WEC. They're both very reliable and competitive suppliers. When we build our projects, we expect Pattern to be a long-term owner, and so we look for equipment suppliers who are reliable during construction, but also have high reliability and performance during operations."

Pattern was excited to find that the county was extremely supportive of the project, and the partnership of ranchers and wind farm actually makes a lot of sense.

Southern Montana is one of the places in North America where, with each passing generation, multi-generational families are finding it increasingly difficult to keep their ranches within the family. "The project really allows landowners to continue to hold the land in the family going forward, and to operate as a working ranch," Thompson says. "For me, I think that was probably the biggest thing—providing an additional income source so the ranching can continue."

Because Pattern Energy (an affiliate of Pattern Development) maintains its projects, the company knows they will be neighbors with the local communities for a very long time, and getting off on the right foot is vital.

 
 The 31 wind turbines on the Stillwater project are from Siemens Gamesa. Five of the turbines are 2.3-MW units with 108-meter rotors, and the remaining 26 are 2.625-MW turbines with 120-meter rotors.
  

"One of the approaches that we've always taken, and that we really feel proud of, is when we show up to a new community, we think of ourselves as a new neighbor, and we think of ourselves as someone that's going to stay in that community for many, many years," says Johnny Casana, Pattern's senior manager for U.S. Political and Regulatory Affairs.

"What we try and do, as you would when you move into any neighborhood, is to get to know the locals, get to know what the neighborhood's concerns are, what they need, learn ways that you can plug in, and ways that you can help."

A good example of Pattern's desire to be a good neighbor was the relationship the company cultivated with the local public schools.

"When we were in the middle of the project's construction, the local school district discovered that the 100-year-old elementary school building, a beautiful little white school building, was unfortunately infested with bats and other unsavory critters to have your children around," says Thompson.

"The school was condemned, and all the elementary school children were moved into the high school down the road. Unfortunately, there was no space, so the desks were set up and classes conducted in the gym and in the corridors." Although the school administration had been aware of the elementary school's issues and had been putting money aside, the district had only managed to save part of what they needed to replace the old school building with new modular buildings. When they learned of the issue, Pattern Development gifted the district $100,000 to help replace the buildings immediately and get the children back into their own school building.

 
Pattern Development was excited to find that Stillwater County was extremely supportive of the wind project, and the partnership of ranchers and wind farm makes a lot of sense; it provides an additional income source for multigenerational families who are working hard to hold the land in the family going forward, and to operate it as a working ranch. 
  

"One of the things I love about that story is it really demonstrates in action Pattern's three value statements which are signed by the executive management and hung in all of our offices. Those three core statements are for environmental stewardship, health and safety, and community and cultural values," says Casana.

Now that the facility is operational, there are between five and ten people on the Stillwater site working on a daily basis. The power is sold under a long-term power purchase agreement for use throughout the state.

"Montana is one of those great locations for wind projects," says Thompson. "There are a lot of projects in development, but the load needs are very slow in developing because Montana has a low population. We are still certainly interested in developing more wind farms in Montana. Stillwater has been a great project for us, a great experience. We'd love to repeat it."

It will be interesting to see what the energy production future holds in Montana. The state has a long history of coal power generation and coal mining and has well-established coal power generators, providing much of that energy to Washington State. Going forward, one of the questions is whether or not Montana will replace exporting coal for electricity production with renewables as an economic opportunity.

"We hope they will," says Thompson. "The shift in demand is partly driven by Washington State utilities. They're moving away from coal dependency, which will hopefully create more wind farm opportunities in Montana."

In the meantime, Pattern Development continues to build elsewhere. This year they finished a number of big projects including the 300-megawatt Henvey Inlet project in Canada, which was the largest wind project ever to be built on First Nation land in Canada, in addition to being the largest wind project in Ontario.

"New Mexico is one of the biggest parts of our North American portfolio right now," says Casana. "To date, we are the largest investor in clean power in the history of New Mexico, with over 500 megawatts of operating wind.

"The Grady wind farm that we just completed building on the eastern part of the state in Curry County was financed in conjunction with a newly built transmission line, financing the transmission lines and wind farm projects together so they can deliver the best quality resource to the grid, in order to get to the customers who are looking to buy it and really want it."

Pattern Development also has two additional suites of projects in the central part of New Mexico, about 1,000 megawatts of new wind, plus a new transmission line. After that, Pattern will focus on developing a wind farm which will provide 2,000 to 3,000 megawatts of additional wind. That is an interesting project for Pattern, in that most of the energy is being developed for customers outside New Mexico, like California-based utilities needing to reach renewable goals.

It's an exciting world for wind and solar right now. But no matter what the size of the project, Pattern Development believes it all still comes down to being good neighbors and focusing on the value of environmental stewardship, health and safety, and stable communities.

 


Winter 2020