Engineers with NorthWestern Energy, a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based electricity and natural gas utility, have announced that they would like to route a 500-kilovolt transmission line alongside existing power lines that pass through the Idaho National Laboratory on their way to the Borah Substation west of Pocatello, shown here as "Proposed Line B." The decision drops another route they considered, shown as "Proposed Line A," to essentially just a secondary alternative. Express graphic by Gavin McNeil.
Carey residents were relieved to hear that NorthWestern Energy, a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based electricity and natural gas utility, has a new preferred route for a proposed 500-kilovolt transmission line from Montana to Idaho.
The company's decision although certainly not final, came from representatives of the company who spoke at a meeting in Carey Tuesday night.
Gathered at the city hall along Main Street in this small agricultural community, NorthWestern Energy engineers said the utility would prefer to route the major transmission line alongside existing power lines that pass through the Idaho National Laboratory on their way to the Borah Substation west of Pocatello.
From the Borah Substation, the proposed Mountain States Transmission Intertie project would head west and end at the Midpoint Substation just south of Shoshone on the east side of U.S. Highway 93. The local southern section of the nearly 400-mile transmission line, which would begin near Townsend, Mont., would cross the high-desert, sagebrush lands to the east and south of the 750,000-acre Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.
That section would see between 20 and 25 miles of line pass through a narrow southern extension of Blaine County, well south of Carey.
This new decision by NorthWestern Energy de-emphasizes a controversial route the company had identified earlier that led to heated exchanges during public meetings held in Carey last year. That more controversial route is now a secondary alternative.
That route would hug the monument's northwest boundary between Arco and Carey. In the Carey area, the route may have required it to pass through private Blaine County ranchlands. From Carey, the alternate transmission line would head southwest along U.S. Highway 26 to Shoshone.
That section would see 30 to 35 miles of power line pass through Blaine County.
The decision to go with the existing power transmission corridor is the result of public input gathered in the 18 Idaho and Montana counties the proposed transmission line would pass through and feedback from state and federal agency officials, NorthWestern Representatives said Tuesday.
"There's been quite a bit of activity since we last talked," said Michael Cashell, Chief Transmission Officer for NorthWestern Energy, which serves about 650,000 customers spread out in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.
Cashell said the company considered both the social and environmental impacts associated with the numerous routes identified as alternatives before finally arriving at their selection of a preferred route.
The proposed transmission line would be made up of lattice steel towers and tubular steel self-supporting towers ranging in height from 110 to 130 feet tall. The line would require a 220-foot-wide right-of-way.
The decision to forego the route around the northwest side of Craters of the Moon was particularly pleasing to Linn Kincannon, Idaho Conservation League's Ketchum-based Central Idaho director.
"The Idaho Conservation League is most interested in where those lines are located," she said.
However, the decision by NorthWestern Energy does not entirely kill off the possibility of the more northern Carey route. The company is filing its application with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) this week, which will commence an in-depth environmental impact statement process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The NEPA process requires companies like NorthWestern Energy to identify possible alternatives, which means the Carey route could in the end still be selected by BLM officials as the preferred route.
"We can't tell the BLM how to think," Cashell said.
And while the preferred route may appear to be less burdensome due to its paralleling of existing lines, there are other factors federal officials will have to consider as part of the NEPA process, said Jim Jensen, Senior Project Manager for Power Engineers in Boise, a contractor for NorthWestern Energy. For one, the Carey route is shorter, Jensen noted.
"This (preferred) route is the second longest route of all of the alternatives evaluated," he said.
The Mountain States Transmission Intertie is being built to meet the needs of new sources of electricity generation coming online in Montana like wind and coal and to relieve existing constraints on the high-voltage transmission system, or electric power grid, in the western United States, company documents state. The project is also an outgrowth of the National Energy Policy of 2005, passed by the U.S. Congress, which directed the Department of Energy to conduct a nationwide study of electric transmission congestion on the high-voltage system.
NorthWestern Energy is mandated to look at the transmission requests of new sources of power generation, the utility's communications coordinator Tom Glanzer said.
Although transmission lines already exist between the two regions the proposed 500-kilovolt line would serve, those lines are not enough to serve the growing demand created by new energy resources, many renewable, Glanzer explained.
"There's very little room on that system," he said. "It's like updating a two-lane highway to an interstate," he said. Despite these explanations and NorthWestern Energy's decision to go with the southern route as their preferred alternative, some in Carey remained unimpressed. For them, only one option seemed palatable: a "No Action" alternative, which NEPA mandates must be considered.
"I think you need to pay a lot of attention to the 'No Action' alternative," said John Peavey, a third-generation Carey sheep rancher and the owner of the Flat Top Sheep Ranch, which could see the line pass close by if the Carey route were chosen.
Changing times and rapidly increasing energy prices have the potential to reshape the demand for power in the West, which could impact the need for new transmission lines, Peavey said.
"I think that's a real valid question," he said.
With the utility's application in BLM hands, further opportunities for providing public comment will be available. Watch future editions of the Idaho Mountain Express for information about how and where to comment.