By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Northwestern Energy, the publicly regulated utility company that supplies power to Big Sky, says two primary sites are still on the table for an electrical substation that the company plans to build between existing substations in Meadow Village and on Lone Mountain.
The company has renewed an option to purchase a site near the Antler Ridge neighborhood that’s been dubbed the Midway site. Earlier this year, the company fielded criticism for pursuing the site with little or no notice to nearby homeowners.
“We have worked to renew the [Midway] option on the Antler Ridge, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to build a substation there,” said NorthWestern Energy spokesman Butch Larcombe. He added that the company is also pursuing an option on the Rainham site, which is located across Lone Mountain Trail on a parcel with fewer impacted homeowners.
The Midway site was the most widely contested location for the substation, which NorthWestern Energy says is necessary to accommodate growing demand and reduce the likelihood of a power outage by adding redundancy to the grid. After encountering considerable pushback from concerned property owners, NorthWestern Energy hired the Burton K. Wheeler Center to facilitate a months-long community engagement process.
Larcombe said the company is seriously considering a proposal to construct a gas-insulated substation, or GIS, put forth by a collection of concerned community members. A GIS would require a smaller plot of land than an open-air substation, and proponents argue that since it could be enclosed within a building, property value-damaging visual and noise impacts would be reduced.
NorthWestern Energy went to Snowmass, Colorado, in September to tour the GIS there. Eric Austin with the Burton K. Wheeler Center for Public Policy, said that no major concerns were identified during the tour, and Larcombe said the company is closely examining the feasibility of using that technology.
“But the big caveat here is that it’s a much more expensive option,” Larcombe said, adding that it would be unfair to expect all NorthWestern customers to pay the additional expense. “Probably, people who live in the area [will] be expected to pay for some of that cost.”
A date has not been set yet, but Austin said the goal is to convene the community in early 2018 to present the results of the company’s research. NorthWestern Energy will present on both the Rainham and Midway sites, and will discuss potential cost-sharing measures that have been identified to cover the higher cost of a GIS.
Austin didn’t elaborate on what an incremental cost structure—a means of recouping the cost above what a conventional, open-air substation would require—might look like, saying it’s still too early to tell. “I don’t want to guess on what’s going to be a consensus option for the community.”
Larcombe added that it’s a complicated issue and determining the precise area where ratepayers would pitch in for those additional costs—and the percent they’d be expected to cover—is difficult.
During an Aug. 29 public meeting, an employee of NorthWestern Energy said that the GIS in Snowmass resulted in an additional $8 million in incremental costs.
NorthWestern Energy is also conducting a wildlife impact study for both sites.
Austin said the company would like to make a final decision on a site by late June and file the necessary conditional use permit shortly thereafter.
In order to address infrastructure demands coming down the pike, and streamline community engagement for large projects, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce is exploring the formation of a town council. If established, such a group could have a bearing on how the site selection moves forward.
Community members interested in staying updated on the process can visit https://bigskysubstation.wixsite.com/bigskysubstation for more information.