By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Building generation plants to feed off Montana's wealth of coal, wind or gas is pointless without the transmission lines to carry electricity to power-hungry markets in other states, a group of energy industry leaders agreed Thursday.
They endorsed a study, already under way by three utilities, on possible scenarios for new power lines running west out of Montana, to help satisfy demand for electricity in the Pacific Northwest.
The energy group, so new it doesn't have a name, also suggested some kind of public relations campaign explaining to Montanans why the industry believes new power plants and lines are necessary and beneficial.
The Martz administration organized the gathering to deal with what proponents of more electrical generation in Montana consider the biggest stumbling block to such development. Existing transmission lines cannot handle the kind of increased load that proposed new plants would produce, they said.
''Without additional investment, without transmission upgrades, nobody is going to build anything of any size based on Montana resources,'' said John Etchart, whose consulting firm is working to develop coal-fired generation in south-central Montana.
The group advocated either stringing higher-capacity lines through existing corridors or building new transmission routes to markets out of the state. Most seemed to think that sending electricity west makes the most sense, but some suggested lines strung south into Wyoming to reach the Denver and Salt Lake City markets would be cheaper and easier.
By one estimate, Montana has 50,000 megawatts of potential generation capacity just from coal, said Jerry Vaninetti, president of Great Northern Power Development, which has proposed a $900 million coal-fired power plant in Miles City.
''There's lots of power stranded in Montana,'' he said. ''We sit on all this coal and wind out here, but we can't get it out.''
Ray Brush of NorthWestern Energy, Montana's major utility with more than 300,000 customers, said a study being conducted by his and two other companies should be done by year's end.
The study will look at the costs and technical problems associated with erecting new lines for carrying power out of Montana to the Seattle and Portland areas. The study will consider three versions of such a project, with capacity ranging from 500 megawatts to 2,500 megawatts.
Larry Nordell, representing the state consumer counsel's office, said the first goal should be contracts between developers of generation plants and utilities wanting to buy their power. Only then will financing be found for either the plants or power lines, he said.
Etchart said federal eminent domain authority will be necessary to obtain any new routes for transmission lines, because of the complexity of building through numerous jurisdictions.
John Hines, one of two Montana members on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said the economic downturn in the late 1990s means that energy demand in the Northwest is not expected to rise as fast as once thought. In fact, he said forecasts suggest a surplus in the region could continue to 2012.
But that works in Montana's favor, because it gives the state more time to develop the production and transmission necessary to compete in the energy supply market, Hines said.
The group consists of utility spokesmen, power plant developers, transmission company executives, state officials, and Bonneville Power Administration representatives.