Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Community Building Forum series

NorthWestern Energy on infrastructure, investment and demand

March equaled planning for a COVID-19 response for many organizations. NorthWestern Energy was no exception.

“There was a lot of pain felt through this community but ultimately, Montana is growing – and no part is growing more quickly than right here,” Robert Rowe, President & CEO of NorthWestern Energy said at Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Community Building Forum.

He explained that the company is responsible for $5.2 billion in the state’s most essential infrastructure. Specific to the Big Sky region, NorthWestern Energy investment from 2007 to 2024 is $98.3 million “to support all the investments that you are making but also just to support quality of life here.”

Planning in the Big Sky area has been focused on improving reliability, dealing with aging infrastructure, upgrading the infrastructure and modernizing systems “to provide you better service, more information and more choices.”

With about 6,000 customers in this area, he explained those range from the private clubs, the resort, local businesses and hotels as well as many homes.

Notable projects in the area include the Jackrabbit-Big Sky line, substation work at the Mountain Village substation, the Lone Mountain substation and the Ennis substation. Upgrading the transmission line along Jack Creek Rd. was incredibly important, he explained.

“Two lines going to an area is critical for reliability,” he said and then mentioned how Jackson Hole had a single line that was taken out by a storm a couple of years ago.

The new Midway Substation was an example of partnership, he noted.

“This is a very visible project the goal of which was to make it as invisible a project as we could. It was a wonderful example of how this community came together,” he said. “[There was] probably some skepticism toward us to begin with, but we really did want to partner. As a result, the project looks different and is located differently than would have been the case without the community [feedback].”

NorthWestern Energy’s predecessor Montana Power went through supply deregulation, divestiture, and a bankruptcy.

“So we have been rebuilding a portfolio, the foundation of that is the hydro system. Interestingly, since 2011 in Montana we have added 780 megawatts of power – both owned and long term contracts. All of which has been carbon free,” he said.

Hydro is a solid and more stable foundation from an energy perspective and is key to the company’s larger goal of reducing carbon intensity in its energy generation. As an example, NorthWestern Energy has reduced its carbon intensity by more than 50% the last decade and has a commitment to further reduce carbon up to 2045.

A technological advancement is being highlighted in Yellowstone National Park, where the energy company works on a contract basis and serves both the park and concessionaires.

“We’ve made a small commitment to a start up of super capacitors, which is a less chemical intense alternative to batteries. We have one microgrid supercapacitor project in the park right now,” he said, noting another will soon be underway at a ranger station.

In addition to advancements from hydropower, the company is pushing further with wind power.

“The challenge in Montana is we are extremely peaky,” he said, explaining that means high winter peaks and summer peaks. During highest demand, 1,400 megawatts are needed. NorthWestern Energy’s portfolio can only produce 755 megawatts.

“So what I’m worried about as a customer as well as an employee is we are 46% exposed to the regional peak market. That’s pricing vulnerability. It is also resource vulnerability,” he said.

The importance of technology will be increasingly realized as it “really overlays all of our systems.”

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