While great strides have been made in recent years to facilitate the responsible development of new high voltage electrical transmission in the state, Montana has one transmission opportunity you probably haven’t heard about that should take priority ahead of all the rest.

Officially known as the Montana-to-Washington Transmission System Upgrade, the proposed project would involve a partnership between the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal agency, and NorthWestern Energy to re-conductor and reinforce the existing 500-kilovolt transmission line connecting Colstrip with Washington state.

Why is this project so critical to Montanans? First, it would create additional capacity on the existing transmission line. This would allow for the development and export of approximately 600 megawatts of additional Montana wind energy, an economic boon to our state.

To get an idea for the scale of opportunity Montana could capture, consider that by the end of 2012 the state will have installed about 600 megawatts of wind energy in the last seven years. This has resulted in approximately $1.3 billion in capital investment from private companies, 1,300 construction jobs and 80 permanent jobs.

Add to that the $5.5 million wind energy companies paid in property taxes to state and often rural local governments in 2010 – a number sure to increase when new wind farms come online in 2012 and as tax abatements expire – and you have an industry that’s made a significant, positive impact on Montana’s economy. Now, through just this one transmission upgrade, Montana could double the economic benefit wind energy has created in the state.

The Montana-to-Washington Transmission System Upgrade would not require new construction in our state. Aside from one new substation to be located somewhere between Missoula and St. Regis, all infrastructure is already in place and merely needs to be retooled. The existing right-of-way is established and the easements already secured.

But perhaps the best part, at least for Montana ratepayers, is the price tag. The upgrade will cost approximately $200 million. While that might seem a hefty price, in the world of transmission development, this is truly a tremendous value.

And its real cost to Montanans is nothing. That’s right – because the project need was identified by Montana wind developers looking to sell energy out-of-state, the project costs will be covered by those developers and their out-of-state customers, not by Montana ratepayers and not by state or federal governments.

Simply put, this project is likely the best transmission system investment available in the West. And Montanans have clearly stated their desire to see upgrades like it move forward. In fact, in the last Legislature the Senate passed by rare unanimous vote a bill to encourage the development of transmission upgrade projects:

“The legislature finds that […] transmission upgrades within existing corridors serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity and transmission providers are encouraged to construct those transmission upgrades.” 75-20-102, Montana Code Annotated.

The Montana-to-Washington Transmission System Upgrade is a project upon which all Montanans should be able to agree. After all, wind power is a product Montana can feel good about selling; with every hour of wind energy generated, fossil fuel generation is replaced or backed off along with the associated air pollutants. Montana’s abundance of wind resources offers great potential to further produce and sell our homegrown brand of energy, while harnessing proven related economic and workforce development opportunities. Bonneville Power Administration and NorthWestern Energy should move forward with the project.

It’s too good of a deal for Montanans to pass up.

Jeff L. Fox is the Montana policy manger for Renewable Northwest Project, a non-profit regional advocacy group that promotes the expansion of environmentally responsible renewable energy resources.