By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – A July 25 meeting at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center about an electrical substation to be located somewhere between Meadow Village and Lone Mountain drew a sizable crowd and some strongly-worded comments from attendees.
The meeting, which started off as an explanation of a month-long facilitation process intended to ease tensions between NorthWestern Energy and Big Sky community members, inspired some sharp criticism of NorthWestern’s initial approach to locating a site for a new substation.
One community member expressed frustration that NorthWestern had moved forward with property acquisition for a potential site near the Sleeping Bear and Antler Ridge subdivisions before contacting homeowners in those neighborhoods.
“NorthWestern Energy is absolutely committed to figuring out how to make that work in the most sustainable, collectively beneficial way possible,” said Eric Austin, whose organization, the Burton K. Wheeler Center for Public Policy, was hired by NorthWestern to facilitate discussion between the energy company and the Big Sky community.
The project Austin is facilitating is scheduled to move quickly, with five smaller community meetings culminating in an Aug. 29 presentation of NorthWestern’s plan moving forward.
Northwestern Major Projects Director Tom Pankratz said the utility company anticipates Big Sky’s energy load demand will nearly double in the next 10 to 15 years. The company currently serves approximately 4,400 electrical customers in Big Sky.
Pankratz said Big Sky’s energy demand grows about 8 percent annually, a marked difference from the statewide average of about 1 percent, and that an additional substation is needed to add redundancy to the system and lessen the likelihood of long-term blackouts.
Most of the concerns residents voiced at the meeting centered on how NorthWestern’s initial selection, dubbed the Midway Site, would compromise aesthetics and property values. Community members have also expressed concern over the noise and wildlife impact of the proposed substation.
“How many of you would like, at your house, to look out [your] windows and see that substation right in front of you?” Antler Ridge resident Buz Daviz asked the employees of Northwestern Energy in attendance. “I don’t think anybody in Big Sky, whether it’s in Antler Ridge, whether it’s in Sleeping Bear, whether it’s in Aspen Grove, should have to look at a substation.”
Davis added that he knows of one lot owner who’s lost a sale because a potential buyer heard a substation might be going in nearby.
Another Antler Ridge resident, John Bauchman, said he was under the impression that the Rainham site that had been proposed to Northwestern was a legitimate alternative to the Midway site. “The fact that we’re having these meetings leads me to believe or assume that there is a preference still for the Midway site [rather] than the Rainham sight,” he said.
“We don’t have a preferred site at this point,” Hangratez said, echoing an earlier comment by Pat Asay, manager of lands and permitting for Northwestern Energy. Asay said NorthWestern’s conditional use permit application for that site has been suspended.
Bauchman said he’s concerned that the substation, particularly if it’s located at the Midway site, will be an eyesore for people as they drive to Lone Mountain, similar to the sewer ponds located in Meadow Village.
The substation will require about 5 acres of land, and homeowners have argued that there are ways to minimize its impact—by being choosy about location and looking at ways to minimize viewshed impact, like building it underground or enclosing it in a structure. The tumult over the substation has spawned a Facebook group, The Big Sky Alliance for Responsible Development.
Fielding a question about cost—specifically about the feasibility of locating the substation at a higher-cost site that would be less impactful to homeowners—Hangratez said, “Yes, cost is a consideration for us. As I’m sure you all know, everything we do in Big Sky tends to be on the higher end in terms of cost … As a regulated utility, we have to look at cost very carefully and we have to consider that [on behalf] of all of our customers.”
The first focus group discussions took place July 31 and Aug. 1 at the Big Sky Water and Sewer District. The July 31 meeting was geared toward Yellowstone Club and Spanish Peaks owners as well as other interested owners, and the Aug. 1 meeting was directed toward Meadow Village business and other commercial interests.
At the Aug. 1 meeting, NorthWestern provided information about site requirements for the substation as well as visual renderings of what it would look like if located at two of the four potential sites.
“We will take our last breath to make sure this isn’t going to happen [at the Midway} site,” said Sleeping Bear Road resident Jeannine Hall, whose deck-view would overlook the Midway site.
For more information about the project and future meetings, including upcoming meeting on Aug. 17, Aug. 20 and Aug. 21, visit https://bigskysubstation.wixsite.com/bigskysubstation.
EBS Associate Editor Sarah Gianelli contributed reporting to this story.