New possibilities

Substation meeting chance to review options

On March 9, NorthWestern Energy sent a letter to 3,650 Big Sky ratepayers inviting them to a public forum on April 11. At the meeting, NorthWestern Energy will unveil new renderings illustrating options for a mid-mountain substation at one of two proposed sites just off of Lone Mountain Trail.

     The letter was from Mike Cashell, NorthWestern’s vice president of transmission, who will join the upcoming gathering—starting at 6:30 p.m. in the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center. The event will offer an update on a “public engagement process” that began last summer “in order to gather the community’s concerns and perceptions about potential sites” for the substation, wrote Cashell. 

     “As a result of the feedback we received,” continued Cashell, “we indicated we would complete a thorough analysis of the two available sites, as well as the potential to utilize a gas-insulated (GIS) substation in Big Sky.”

     The new renderings will show the GIS option, a traditional substation design and a low-profile traditional design, which will be shared and discussed. 

     Cashell urged anyone with a strong interest in this issue to join a “an Exploratory Team… encompassing diverse perspectives and experiences from the community.”

     The team will be facilitated by Dr. Eric Austin of the Burton K. Wheeler Center at Montana State University, who is assisting with outreach and coordinating input from stakeholders. 

     Austin and representatives from NorthWestern traveled to Aspen, Colo., to tour a GIS substation, which can be enclosed inside a structure made to look like a barn or something else that blends in well with nearby homes. Both proposed substation sites are near the Antler Ridge, Sleeping Bear and Lost Trails neighborhoods. 

     Traveling to Aspen was helpful to see what’s possible with GIS technology, said Austin, who added there are no examples of it being used elsewhere in Montana. 

     The mid-mountain substation project is also unique because it’s come about in response to unmatched growth and customer demand in Big Sky. 

     “Big Sky is one of the fastest growing areas of Montana,” explains NorthWestern on a public information website dedicated to the mid-mountain project. “To accomodate and keep up with this high growth, the electrical infrastructure that serves the community needs to grow as well. Electricity usage in Big Sky is currently growing at about 8 percent per year.” 

     Around Montana, demand typically grows at about 1 percent per year. 

     One complicating issue is how to pay for the new substation. Austin explained if NorthWestern goes with a traditional or low-profile traditional design, then the Montana Public Service Commission will likely approve funding the project, “The same way they deal with infrastructure anywhere else. It would be allocated across all of their customer base.” 

     But it’s unclear how to fund the GIS option, which will be significantly more expensive, said Austin. 

     John Bauchman, an Antler Ridge resident and member of the local Facebook group Big Sky Alliance for Responsible Development, said his group was started by “neighbors that are adjacent to the first site proposed by NorthWestern Energy, as well as others in the community concerned about the location of the substation.”

     Bachman went on to say the Alliance does not deny the need for the new substation, but wonders if “we want a new substation adjacent to the main artery to the resort that is going to be highly visible similar to what we have with the sewer ponds when you come into Big Sky.”

     The Alliance encourages the public to come to the meeting and understand what the options are for the two sites. 

For more information, you can find the Alliance on Facebook and visit a site managed by the Burton K. Wheeler Center— 


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