Whitefish Hydroelectric Plant Roars Back to Life

By Beacon Staff

After two decades of abandonment, a refurbished hydroelectric plant outside of Whitefish has roared back to life through a power-purchase agreement between the city and Flathead Electric Cooperative.

Whitefish is now one of the only municipalities in Montana with the ability to produce power through its own hydroelectric facility, potentially saving the city tens of thousands of dollars annually in energy costs down the road. Philipsburg operates two similar small-scale plants.

With the plant’s Sept. 7 start-up date, the first phase of a two-phase, 20-year agreement between Flathead Electric Cooperative and the city of Whitefish is officially underway. City Manager Chuck Stearns says the deal is mutually beneficial for both parties.

“Flathead Electric gets to diversify its power source and, once our loan is offset, the energy goes toward our own consumption,” Stearns said. “I want to thank FEC for its tremendous effort in making this project go forward.”

The cooperative paid the city $400,000 in advance for 6.65 million kilowatt-hours of energy to be generated and delivered to the power grid during the first phase’s eight-year period. That money, along with a $200,000 stimulus grant, was used to rebuild the plant over the past year. The generator, turbine and controls and electric components were all replaced.

The facility had sat abandoned at its location near the water treatment plant since falling into disrepair after a lightning storm in the early 1990s. It was built in the early 1980s by the same group of engineers that constructed the Philipsburg plants.

During the agreement’s second phase, Flathead Electric Cooperative will continue accepting energy from the plant in exchange for electricity delivered to selected accounts within Whitefish’s city government, such as water and wastewater.

A consultant estimated the plant can generate enough energy to power the equivalent of 150 to 250 homes, which city officials have estimated to equal no more than three or four accounts, with water and sewer the highest priorities. The Stumptown Ice Den and streetlights are other options.

Echoing Stearns, Flathead Electric Cooperative General Manager Ken Sugden said both sides stand to benefit from the agreement. When 20 years is up, the two parties will discuss the possibility of renewal, Sugden said.

“Pre-purchasing the energy made the project feasible for Whitefish and gives Flathead Electric another local source of clean energy,” he said. “Eventually, the energy will be used in the city of Whitefish’s own water and sewer pumping loads.”

Richard Hoehne, Philipsburg’s public works director, said in a past interview that his town has benefited substantially from producing its own power. He said the two plants generate energy for seven city accounts and its school districts.

“For us, it’s worked out pretty well,” he said.

In February, Flathead Electric also announced a 20-year power-purchase agreement with the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company for energy produced by Stoltze’s new biomass-fueled electric cogeneration facility.

Stoltze unveiled the cogeneration plant last month during a groundbreaking ceremony in conjunction with celebrating its 100-year anniversary.