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Montana County Debates Battery Storage Facility Installation

Butte-Silver Bow officials are considering construction of a five-acre utility-scale battery energy storage facility on an open 200-acre plot of land which could help to fill energy gaps. But many residents are opposed.

(TNS) — The Butte-Silver Bow, Mont., Zoning Board is expected to decide Thursday whether a five-acre utility-scale battery energy storage facility can be located next to a NorthWestern Energy substation in an otherwise open tract of 200 acres south of town.

County officials have never dealt with a battery grid project and there has been a major development since the board held a public hearing on it last month. But one thing hasn't changed: Dozens of residents in south Butte are vehemently opposed to it.

They say it would scar the views and character of an area zoned for residential use, pose safety risks and lead to further industrialization in a tranquil part of town with open spaces and scenery still intact.

The area is south of the airport and just east of Continental Drive, about a mile north of Highway 2, with some houses and the East Ridge to the east and the foothills of the Highlands to the south.

"Once the serenity and beauty is tarnished, it's likely gone for good," resident Dave Blaskovich said during the public hearing. "If it's the feel of industry you crave, then look in the rear-view mirror. We have a mountain stained rusty red (from strip mining). There's your industry. Let's keep that north of town."

Plus Power, a San Francisco — based developer, had hoped to build the facility on behalf of NorthWestern Energy to help fill gaps in energy capacity and provide electric power if needed during peak loads and critical times, such as severe winter storms.

Plus Power pitched the 75-megawatt project to the Zoning Board on April 15, saying it would be the first utility-scale battery storage facility in Montana and benefit NorthWestern Energy and its Butte and Montana customers. The site would include 144 enclosed lithium-ion batteries, each 9-feet tall, and the area would be fenced and lined with trees.

But only days later after the hearing, NorthWestern chose three other projects in Montana to meet capacity deficits, including a 50-megawatt battery facility in Yellowstone County that would be built by another company. It says it has no ties to the Butte project.

Plus Power and a limited liability company it formed, Copper Energy Storage, still want to build the facility, Scott Schalich, a developer for Plus Power, told The Montana Standard on Monday.

Although Plus Power could seek access to NorthWestern's transmission system to send stored electricity from the facility to other places and utilities, including West Coast states, Schalich said there are no intentions to do that.

He said if the facility is allowed, NorthWestern Energy might ultimately need or want the energy capacity, but regardless, it is intended to benefit Montanans.

Because the proposed site is in an area zoned for one-family, suburban residences, a special variance is needed from the Zoning Board. County planning staff analyzed the proposal but because they have never seen such a project, did not recommend approval or disapproval to the board, said county Planning Director Lori Casey.

Before the public hearing, three Zoning Board members — Sylvia Cunningham, Todd Collins and Loren Burmeister — recused themselves. Cunningham works for NorthWestern Energy, Collins lives near the site and Burmeister is a liability business manager for Atlantic Richfield Co., a part of the energy giant BP, in Butte.

The board will vote on the variance request Thursday night, but approval requires four yes votes, said board Chairman Dave Wing. Because three members have recused themselves, all of the remaining four must vote yes for it to pass, he said.

Plus Power says the battery containers are emission-free, require no water and the facility would be unmanned and remotely controlled except for sporadic maintenance. It says there would be no real noise and no risk of groundwater contamination.

The proposal was drawn up and pitched with NorthWestern Energy in mind. Among other things, NorthWestern faces increasing demands for power capacity at a time coal-fired plants are being shut down. It can purchase power if needed, but market prices are volatile and added costs eventually get passed onto ratepayers.

The site by the substation is crucial, Plus Power says, because it will allow power to be delivered to NorthWestern's grid at three different voltage levels depending on current needs.

Plus Power included extensive drawings and engineering analysis with its proposal, as well as a report from Zagros Shahooei, a professor at Montana State University's Energy Research Institute, on the role of energy storage in Montana.

"Several recent incidents such as the extreme weather in the region in March 2019, wildfires in northern California and extreme winter weather conditions in Texas have shown how volatile the wholesale market prices could be," he says in a report summary.

"Continuing to assume the market will always be able to provide customers with sufficient electricity at affordable prices is a reckless approach that could have severe reliability and cost consequences."

Samuel Redfern says his family has owned the vacant land next to the substation for more than 70 years and he wants to lease it for the project. It would provide income outside the family's small agricultural business, he said, and was good for the environment.

Pete Madison lives about a half-mile from the site and acknowledged to the board that he retired from Montana Power 20 years and gets a pension check from NorthWestern Energy. Regardless, he said, energy storage is needed, especially when demand spikes.

"When it's 40 below statewide, I want to be able to get up in the morning and turn on the light switch and have the lights come on ..." he said. "Where are we going to get the power so I don't freeze to death and die in the dark when the wind don't blow and the sun don't shine?"

But the board received letters and emails from at least 34 opponents, many who live among the spattering of homes south and east of the site. Many submitted the same or a very similar letter.

"The project should locate in Butte, however, to be simple and direct, industrial facilities belong in industrial zones, not centered in residential neighborhoods," the letter says.

The board is supposed to weigh numerous factors in deciding such variances, including compatibility with nearby buildings, character of the area, public safety and public opinion. Opponents say it's a residential zone that also has open spaces and natural beauty.

Dan Villa, a former state budget director who lives close to the East Ridge, said there were other places, such as near the REC Silicon plant west of Butte, the facility could go.

The site south of town was chosen, he suggested, because "it is the cheapest for the developer and it is the most beneficial to the landowners who stood up before you."

Bill Fisher, a battalion chief with the Butte-Silver Bow Fire Department, said there have been numerous fires at such facilities in South Korea and one in Arizona, the latter injuring several people.

The fires emit harmful chemicals and are so new and challenging, the National Fire Protection Association wrote separate standards for fighting them in 2020, he said, and they are likely "something the departments here can't handle."

Schalich said risks were minimal and the battery units are designed to keep fire from spreading.

NorthWestern Energy received 180 proposals to increase its capacity resources from 21 bidders before choosing three to serve Montana customers, the company says.

They are a battery storage facility in Yellowstone County, a natural gas plant in Laurel, Montana, and a purchase agreement with Powerex Corp. that relies on power from mostly hydroelectric resources.

The Zoning Board meets at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in council chambers of the courthouse at 155 W. Granite St.

(c)2021 The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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