By Margo Magnant EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – At a public meeting on April 11 at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, NorthWestern Energy officials presented a new “middle of the road,” low-profile technology option for the proposed electrical substation to address community concerns over its potential impact on the environment, real estate values, visual aesthetics, and more.

With electrical demand expected to double in the next ten years, NorthWestern Energy hired Dr. Eric Austin of Montana State University’s Burton K. Wheeler Center to facilitate a public engagement process that began in July 2017. Since 2000, the growth in Big Sky’s electrical needs is nearly eight times the average across NorthWestern’s service area which includes parts of Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

At the meeting, NorthWestern Energy presented updated renderings of two proposed sites, the Midway site near Sleeping Bear Road, and the Rainham site near Ridgeback Road, both off of Lone Mountain Trail between the Meadow and Mountain Village.

Mac Fogelsong, a principal engineer with the firm Sanderson Stewart, explained three different substation technology options for each site. The traditional substation option would look similar to the existing substation near the Big Sky Community Park. The second option utilizes new low-profile technology, and would be the first of its kind in NorthWestern Energy’s service area.

The features of the low-profile design include underground power access lines, a security wall and a fence. In this model, only the compact equipment would be unenclosed.

The final option, a gas-insulated substation (GIS), is an enclosed structure with underground transmission. Last fall, representatives from NorthWestern toured a substation using GIS technology in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and determined it “would be feasible” in Big Sky, according to Mike Cashell, vice president of transmission for NorthWestern.    

While noise and wildlife-related concerns were addressed, the overwhelming majority of the discussion during the meeting centered on the costs associated with the six options.

A traditional site in the Midway location has the lowest projected cost of $12.3 million; the highest is for a GIS at the Rainham site, estimated at $23.6 million. Regardless of the technology used, the Rainham site is estimated to cost more than Midway due to changes that need to be made to the existing infrastructure. The Midway site would also need to be slightly larger to accommodate a turnaround space for service trucks, whereas trucks would be able to back into the Rainham location.

Reliability is expected to be the same across all options.

 According to Cashell, no mechanism exists for the publicly-regulated corporation to target a specific community with increased rates or charges, which means all of NorthWestern’s 300,000 customers would share the cost of the upgraded facilities in Big Sky. In contrast, Steamboat Springs was able to absorb the added costs of its GIS through a member-driven cooperative which allowed a surcharge. The elected Public Service Commission (PSC) regulates NorthWestern Energy’s rates in Montana.  

“We could support low profile or traditional at either site from a financial standpoint,” said Cashell, indicating that proceeding with GIS technology at either site would require additional funding from the community.

“Wouldn’t the rapid growth of Big Sky absorb some of the additional cost between the traditional and GIS?” asked longtime resident and local real estate agent Becky Pape.

“The answer is no,” Cashell said later in the meeting. He explained that the rates they charge are based on volume and that growth does not correlate with revenue. Another audience member pointed out that relative to the tourism revenue Big Sky generates for the state, the $10 million it would cost to transition from traditional to GIS technology is a “drop in the bucket,” which elicited applause from several members of the audience.

Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky CEO Candace Carr Strauss took exception to that comment, asserting that the recent $10.3 federal TIGER grant awarded to Big Sky “just resolved our transportation issues.”

Austin will continue to facilitate the next steps of the public engagement process, which include the formation of an exploratory team to evaluate the options in greater depth. The group will be tasked with providing “substantive and systematic feedback on the potential impacts of alternative technologies and sites.”

“It will be a consensus-based process,” Austin said.

Final site selection is slated for June 2018 and will correspond with a final public outreach meeting. After that, NorthWestern Energy will file a conditional use permit for approval by the Gallatin County Commission, which they are aiming to do by July 2018.

Yet many homeowners in the affected areas remain unsatisfied. “How are you going to compensate the people that live right by that monster?” asked Beth van Horn.

“We are committed to continue to communicate,” Cashell said.

Nominations to serve on the exploratory team will be accepted through April 25. Those interested should email bigskysubstation@gmail.com. More information on the proposed sites can be found on the project’s website at http://bigskysubstation.wixsite.com/bigskysubstation.