Don Tolman
Don Tolman, chairman of Clark Valley Power (Courtesy photo)

CLARK —  A newly formed group in Clark, Wyo., is considering splitting off from the Red Lodge-based Beartooth Electric Co-op and developing its own source of electricity.

The group, Clark Valley Power and Energy Inc., is looking into the possibility of developing a small hydro facility, tapping local natural gas reserves or signing on with another power company in Wyoming.

To measure public support for the idea, Clark Valley Power and Energy sent ballots to the 400-some Beartooth customers who live south of the Montana border. Of the half that responded, more than 93 percent voted to leave Beartooth for a company regulated by the Wyoming Public Service Commission.

“We just wanted a sense of whether they wanted to do something about it or whether they didn’t,” said Don Tolman, chairman of Clark Valley Power. “It’s not a little thing that we take on to get energy independence.”

Support for making the leap was prompted by a recent rate hike that, according to Clark Valley, doubled the power bills of some Beartooth customers in Wyoming. The increase brings Wyoming customers on par with their Montana counterparts, who were hit with a sizable rate hike a year ago.

Ron Roodell, manager at Beartooth, questioned that rates had doubled but admitted they’d gone up significantly.

“They were way behind,” he said. “I know it hurts. The reality is, if you’re the guy at the end paying the bill, it’s painful.”

During a meeting of Clark Valley Power and Energy earlier this month, which drew more than 70 residents, Tolman described a possible source of hydro power. Little Rocky Creek, which flows out of Deep Lake above Clark, boasts a drop of 850 feet. By installing 2½ miles of piping and a turbine, the flow has the potential of producing 1.6 megawatts — enough to meet Clark’s estimated peak demand of 1.5 megawatts, he said.

What seems easy in theory is not so in reality. The water source is located on National Forest Service Land and this week Tolman discovered that instream flow restrictions on the creek complicate the proposal.

“So, we’re set back quite a ways with that,” Tolman said. “Really, at this point, we need more information.”

Natural-gas wells in the Line Creek area were also investigated. Estimates suggest they don’t produce enough gas for the community’s power needs but as Tolman pointed out, there are other wells in the proximity.

As a third alternative, Clark Valley Power and Energy contacted Rocky Mountain Power, a private company that provides electricity nearby.

“But they don’t want to invade Beartooth’s grid,” Tolman said. “And that’s a big item.”

Art Lovell, who serves as treasurer for the group, is determined to keep such complications from hijacking their efforts.

“It’s a long road to hoe but we will keep at it,” he said. “We have nothing to lose – only to gain.”

As the group continues to explore options, Beartooth Co-op invites them to meet and discuss ideas. Roodell favors tapping available power resources but he’s heard few details on the proposals.

“Who knows?” Roodell asked. “There might be a way we can assist them that may be a benefit to both of us.”

Beartooth’s 400-some Wyoming customers represent roughly 10 percent of the co-op’s membership.