By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – After a month of community meetings, NorthWestern Energy has determined that it will gather more information before settling on a site for the substation it plans to build between Meadow Village and Lone Mountain.
NorthWestern executives say another substation is needed to meet Big Sky’s projected energy load demand—which is expected to nearly double in the next 10 to 15 years—and decrease the likelihood of a blackout.
The facilitation process, which opened with a community-wide meeting July 25 and rolled into a series of five focus groups, drew significant public comment, particularly from homeowners concerned about negative impacts to their property values and viewsheds. Residents also voiced concerns about noise and impacts to wildlife.
“[There were] certainly widespread perceptions that this was a done deal. Hopefully, we’ve walked back from that,” 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.
Austin said there would be significant engagement with the community beyond the Aug. 29 wrap-up meeting, which was held at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and attended by approximately 50 people.
In addition to a more in-depth examination of the two sites that NorthWestern has identified as the leading choices, the company will explore a new substation-construction technology that’s been referred to in meetings as the “not ugly” option. Several meeting attendees indicated that the location of the site will be much easier to agree upon if the discussion shifts to building a more attractive option.
Michael Cashell, who heads NorthWestern’s transmission division, said the company will go to Snowmass, Colorado, on Sept. 12 to learn more about its gas-insulated substation, which is contained within a sealed environment and insulated with sulfur hexafluoride gas.
Snowmass’ substation—which was built by its nonprofit cooperative utility after a similarly contentious process—fits inside a structure that looks like a large barn, and the transmission lines leading into it are buried. Residents of Antler Ridge and Sleeping Bear have said they would prefer that option to an open-air substation. The more conventional option of the two, an open-air substation would require a much larger parcel of land, approximately 5 acres. It would also cost less to build.
NorthWestern Energy does not have experience building gas-insulated substations, and has said that its engineers would have to attend training before they could even price out that option. A conventional substation located in either of the two leading sites is expected to cost between $10 million and $11 million.
The cost associated with a gas-insulated substation is one of the largest unknown variables right now. Cashell said Snowmass residents have assessed that they’ve paid more than $8 million in incremental costs associated with using that technology.
Austin said NorthWestern Energy, which is regulated by the Montana Public Service Commission, will look for a community-approved process to pay for a more expensive technology in tandem with their technical assessments of the two leading sites.
“We’ve heard a number of folks at different meetings say that if it’s a better-looking technology that preserves the values of the community that there’s some willingness to pay for that, but it’s got to be equitable, and it’s got to be fair,” Austin said.
The site that’s been dubbed the Midway site will impact dozens of homeowners in the Antler Ridge and Sleeping Bear subdivisions. The Rainham site, which is slightly more expensive, will impact a handful of homeowners.
“Nobody wants this in their backyard, that’s just clear—whether you’re 60 voices or five, nobody wants it,” said an attendee who identified herself as an owner near the Rainham site. “I implore you to look at technologies that could possibly have less impact.”
Austin said there will be another community involvement meeting in early 2018. NorthWestern would like to have a site picked by the middle of next year, which will eventually entail submitting a conditional use permit to the county zoning board, Cashell said. He anticipates the substation will take two seasons to build.