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One Big Sky Center
Courtesy of the Billings Gazette

New West Daily Roundup for Aug. 16, 2016

Today in New West news: One Big Sky Center proposed for downtown Billings, methane “hot spot” in New Mexico, Xcel Energy poised to strike big renewable energy deal with Colorado, and Canyon Country Discovery Center opening in Monticello, Utah.

Although Billings is the largest city in the state of Montana—indeed, it’s the only city whose population surpasses 100,000—it nonetheless feels smaller, especially when compared to other major cities in the Rocky Mountain region. One developer, according to the Billings Gazette, is looking to change that, with the unveiling of a multiuse development that would stand over every other building in the Billings area currently—and entirely redfine the city’s skyline. From the Gazette:

One Big Sky Center, a multiuse development being proposed for downtown Billings, would include a 70,000-square-foot conference center, a 160-room hotel, downtown residences that cater to both seniors and millennials, plus the addition of major retail and office space downtown.

Plans unveiled Monday also call for a downtown walking mall flanked by two high-rise towers, one of which would be 324 feet tall, dwarfing Montana’s current tallest building, the 272-foot-tall First Interstate tower. Supporters described the project, two years in the making, as a catalyst for new growth and development, and a shot in the arm for the city’s efforts to recruit conventions and conferences.

As planned, the development would include both private and public investment, with some of the money generated through the downtown tax increment funding district. At a news conference attended by more than 75 people, developers said it’s too soon to estimate how much TIF money would be needed to make the development work.

Greg Krueger, development director for the Downtown Billings Alliance, told the Billings City Council Monday that tax increment bonds can probably be used to construct the parking structure. But whether they can be applied to a conference center remains to be seen.

The city council will have a pre-development agreement on the project to consider during its Sept. 12 meeting, City Administrator Tina Volek said.

“It would be fantastic to have something of this magnitude in downtown Billings,” Mayor Tom Hanel said. “What I keep hearing is, ‘where is the money going to come from?’ That seems to be the big question. Obviously that will be a huge hurdle.”


Asked about potential roadblocks, [MontDevCo LLC developer and principal Skip] Ahern said the project’s complex financing plan remains the biggest challenge. But the project is being designed with enough flexibility so that it meets the needs of the marketplace, he said.

Burke McHugh and Greg Tatham, principals in MontDevCo LLC, both have experience in real estate development. They became interested in Billings about four years ago while looking at other investment opportunities in the Roundup area.

“We had spent time in the Crowne Plaza and the Northern Hotel,” Tatham said. “We realized that downtown Billings had a lot going on. It reminded us of where Denver was 30 years ago.”

Since 2014, climatologists have been studying a so-called methane “hot spot” in New Mexico, puzzling over its specific causes. Now, according to a new study from NASA, researchers have identified the source of those methane emissions: gas extraction and coal mining. The study’s abstract is below:

Methane (CH4) impacts climate as the second strongest anthropogenic greenhouse gas and air quality by influencing tropospheric ozone levels. Space-based observations have identified the Four Corners region in the Southwest United States as an area of large CH4 enhancements. We conducted an airborne campaign in Four Corners during April 2015 with the next-generation Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (near-infrared) and Hyperspectral Thermal Emission Spectrometer (thermal infrared) imaging spectrometers to better understand the source of methane by measuring methane plumes at 1- to 3-m spatial resolution. Our analysis detected more than 250 individual methane plumes from fossil fuel harvesting, processing, and distributing infrastructures, spanning an emission range from the detection limit ∼ 2 kg/h to 5 kg/h through ∼ 5,000 kg/h. Observed sources include gas processing facilities, storage tanks, pipeline leaks, and well pads, as well as a coal mine venting shaft. Overall, plume enhancements and inferred fluxes follow a lognormal distribution, with the top 10% emitters contributing 49 to 66% to the inferred total point source flux of 0.23 Tg/y to 0.39 Tg/y. With the observed confirmation of a lognormal emission distribution, this airborne observing strategy and its ability to locate previously unknown point sources in real time provides an efficient and effective method to identify and mitigate major emissions contributors over a wide geographic area. With improved instrumentation, this capability scales to spaceborne applications [Thompson DR, et al. (2016) Geophys Res Lett 43(12):6571–6578]. Further illustration of this potential is demonstrated with two detected, confirmed, and repaired pipeline leaks during the campaign.

Environmental justice advocacy network Western Environmental Law Center hailed the study in a press release, calling it “a major step forward in understanding the cause of New Mexico’s methane ‘hot spot.’” However, they criticized the study for some of its conclusions—namely that it only calls for “fixing a few emitters,” whereas the Center believes methane emissions should be cut across the board, from emitters big and small.

Keeping with energy, over the past few months, we’ve been following Xcel Energy’s attempts to add more renewable sources to Colorado’s grid, with a heavy focus on wind power. But the company has also been looking at solar, especially in the Denver metro area, where they announced their intention to test solar batteries in the Stapleton neighborhood. Now, according to the Denver Business Journal, the utility is poised to strike an agreement with the state of Colorado that would change how electricity is produced in the state—and how people pay for it. Pending approval from state regulators, of course. From the Journal:

The settlement covers three proposals the power utility has submitted to state regulators: One to change its customer rate structure, another to create a community solar program, and a third to add more renewable energy to its portfolio.

The agreement, filed Monday with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, involves 22 of the 26 groups that are parties to one or more of those efforts, which Minneapolis-based Xcel (NYSE: XEL) is pushing in the state as part of its “Our Energy Future” plan. After months of negotiations, the 22 entities agreed either to the entire settlement or to pieces of it.

“The agreement will benefit Xcel Energy’s Colorado customers by allowing us to move forward with the ‘Our Energy Future’ initiative,” said Alice Jackson, Xcel’s regional vice president for rates and regulatory affairs.

“It will allow us to meet our customers’ expectations by giving them more control over their energy choices. It will bring more renewable and carbon-free energy to Colorado through the use of new technologies, and it will be provide affordable and reliable energy to further power the state’s economy,” Jackson said.

Solar-power interests hailed the agreement.

“The solar industry will create more jobs and produce more affordable clean energy because we have settled these issues,’’ said Rebecca Cantwell, executive director of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group for the solar power industry in Colorado.

The parties to the settlement includes some of the state’s biggest cities, its biggest electricity users and major environmental advocacy groups.

They include the cities of Denver and Boulder; CF&I Steel L.P., which operates a Pueblo steel mill; Climax Molybdenum Co., which operates the Henderson Mine in Clear Creek County; the state and national solar power trade groups; and Western Resource Advocates, an environmental advocacy group that focuses on policy issues.


The agreement also will change the rates that solar power customers pay under the existing “net metering system” so that rates are higher during times of peak demand and lower during off-peak times, said Gwen Farnsworth, an energy policy advisor with Western Resource Advocates, based in Boulder.

“We hope this agreement among diverse interests encourages stakeholders in other states to look for creative, collaborative solutions that advance clean affordable energy for everyone. Good rate design and clean energy innovation can balance multiple interests. We look forward to presenting the agreement to the PUC for their consideration,” Farnsworth said.

Finally, residents of Monticello, Utah are hoping a new science school and museum will put the “one-time uranium boomtown” even more on the map—but not too much, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The Colorado Country Discovery Center, which cost $8 million and took over a decade to realize, hopes to draw adventurous souls heading along U.S. 191 in to learn more about Utah’s marvelous landscapes—and hopefully some tourist money too. From the Tribune:

More important than driving tourists to area businesses, the new center promotes wider understanding of one of the world’s most stunning landscapes, [Four Corners School of Outdoor Education founder Janet] Ross said during a tour of the 16,200-square-foot building. It features classrooms, a small conference center, a climbing wall and a round kivalike room filled with interactive displays demonstrating such natural phenomenon as wind dynamics, magnetic fields, color theory, time warps and the geological underpinnings of the Colorado Plateau.

Ross dedicated a storytelling room to her mother, Sari, a professional storyteller from Durango, Colo., who died this year. The seat of honor is a high-back chair made by Bluff artist Joe Pachak. Embedded in the entrance floor is a map of the Colorado Plateau.

The discovery center celebrates its grand opening Saturday with family-friendly activities, Native American cultural demonstrations and music, including bluegrass and folk bands. John Herrington, the nation’s first astronaut of Native American heritage, will offer keynote remarks and flautist R. Carlos Nakai and his quartet will headline the evening’s musical program.

Rising behind the center are the 27 massive turbines of the new Latigo Wind Park, which dominates the Monticello skyline while pumping power into Rocky Mountain Power’s electrical grid. The grounds have been landscaped into a nature play park, pavilions offer shade for learners and picnickers, 2 miles of trails course through the 48-acre property and an observatory with a 14-foot dome offers views into star-laden night skies.

The idea for the center originated with Bill Boyle, the civic-minded publisher of the San Juan Record newspaper. In the 1990s, the Utah governor’s office proposed a science center in the town of Escalante as a way to capitalize on the newly created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But the town’s residents, who resented the surprise monument designation, had no interest in the project.

According to the center’s marketing director, Chris Giangreco, while the city is hopeful for the center’s potential, they’re leery of the town becoming (mainly) a tourist attraction. “Nobody in this building wants Monticello to be like Moab,” Giangreco told the Tribune.

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