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With Trump signature, $30 million hydroelectric project on track at Gibson Dam

July 29, 2018
In The News

President Donald Trump signed a bill Friday that gives Fairfield-based Greenfields Irrigation District more time to complete a $25 to $30 million hydroelectric plant at Gibson Dam.

Gibson, located in the scenic Sun River Canyon northwest of Augusta, has been storing irrigation water for farmers for more than a century, but it's never been tapped for electricity generation.

The project had been dead in the water after Greenfield’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license for the hydro add-ons expired following construction delays.

Portland-based FERC regulates interstate transmission of natural gas, oil and electricity. 

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Now the power plan has been resuscitated.

Trump signed a bill backed by the state's congressional delegation Friday granting a six-year extension of the FERC license.

If the retrofit occurs, the Gibson project would be the 24th hydroelectric dam in Montana, the nation’s fifth-largest producer of hydropower.

“Because the project expired, this bill would reinstate the project with a new deadline,” Greenfields Manager Erling Juel said.

Greenfields is proposing the 15-megawatt hydroelectric project with Bellingham, Wash.-based Tollhouse Energy. The partnership is known as Gibson Dam Hydroelectric Co.

Gibson Hydro plans to sell the power under contract.

Greenfields will use revenue from the sale of the power to address $15 million in maintenance needs across Greenfields’ aging canal system, which is used by 550 farmers to irrigate 83,000 acres of land in northcentral Montana, Juel said.

“Gibson was built for storing irrigation water,” Juel said. “So it’s very important to us that if anybody does hydropower on Gibson, we’re involved so it doesn’t impact our day-to-day irrigation practices and operations.

“Monetarily, it represents a tremendous source of revenue for our district. And what that will allow us to do is invest in modernizing and replacing our 100-year-old infrastructure,” he said.

The House on July 17 passed a bill backed by Montana’s congressional delegation granting a six-year extension of the hydroelectric project's FERC license, which had expired.

The Senate OK’d the legislation in June.

“We’re not building any new dams, we’re just tapping into the energy of a 100-year-old dam,” Juel said. "Pretty minimal environmental impact. It’s very green energy, so it’s hard to be against this project.”

When the project was proposed, concerns were raised over the 26-mile-long transmission line needed to transmit the power, especially the portion in the Sun River Canyon.

Gibson Hydro also had difficulty obtaining the necessary right-of-way, which slowed progress and led to the license expiring before construction could begin.

That prompted Gibson Hydro to reach out to the state’s congressional delegation for help in extending the deadline.

Gibson Hydro has addressed the concern about the transmission line by burying the portion that would run through the canyon, Juel said. It also plans to bury several miles of existing overhead power lines in the canyon. 

Gibson Hydro also says it has resolved the right-of-way issues.

Gibson, a concrete arch dam constructed in 1908, is located 19 miles northwest of Augusta.

Power would be generated from water that currently blasts out of two 72-inch-diameter outlet pipes at up to 3,050 cubic feet per second.

That force would be used to power turbines housed in a new 120-foot-long, 60-foot-wide reinforced concrete and metal powerhouse that would be constructed at the base of the dam.

“There would be very little change to the dam internally because we would just tap into the pipes that leave the dam,” Juel said.

In 2012, FERC issued Greenfields a license to build the renewable energy facility on the nonpowered federal dam. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built and owns Gibson, but Greenfields operates and maintains it.

The license required construction to begin within two years of the date of the license, or by Jan. 12, 2014.

The license expired as Gibson negotiated transmission line right-of-way.

FERC granted a two-year extension, until 2016, but said Congress would need to extend the license beyond that.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., at the time a congressman, introduced a bill in 2014 seeking an additional extension but it died for lack of action.

The recently approved legislation was carried by Daines, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Congressman Greg Gianforte, R-Mont.

The hydroelectric project will provide an additional $275,000 in property tax revenue annually to Teton and Lewis and Clark counties and create 15 to 25 jobs with up $5 million in wages during construction, the congressional delegation said in a joint news release.

Although the bill will reinstate the project, it is possible additional requirements or study will be needed because of delays, Juel said. The estimated cost may change as well due to the passage of time and energy prices, he added.

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