Montana’s Public Service Commission will hear from Hi-Line residents left without power for a week or longer by a freak early October storm that downed power poles.
The PSC announced Friday that will hold a listening session Oct. 30 in Havre to discuss how NorthWestern Energy responded to the weather disaster.
Heavy snowfall Oct. 2 toppled hundreds of power poles along the Hi-Line, where some residents were without power up to 10 days. Chris Puyear, PSC spokesman said the state’s utility regulator took several calls from people who believe NorthWestern could have restored power sooner. Some NorthWestern customers pointed out that Hill County Co-operative managed to restore power more quickly. The co-op uses “smart meters” that tell the company which customers are without power. NorthWestern doesn’t use the technology.
“That was an anecdote that piqued the commissioners’ interest,” Puyear said. “The cooperative makes use of smart meters. NorthWestern literally has to drive down the street in trucks to see if lights are on in homes.”
The early fall storm dumped up to 30 inches of wet snow along the Hi-Line. Between Havre and Malta, snow and ice weighted power lines down. When winds kicked up, poles began to snap. The storm triggered a declaration of emergency on the Fort Belknap Reservation, blocked roads and left thousands without power.
At the peak of Tuesday's outages, about 9,500 NorthWestern Energy customers were powerless. Half of those customers were quickly brought back online, but others waited days. There were also roughly 3,000 electric cooperative customers without power.
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Big Flat Electric Cooperative lost 130 power poles, leaving 75 percent of its 1,100 members without power. Some customers were brought back online in the first few days, but power wasn’t restored in other areas until Oct. 8.
At Darin Hamilton’s home outside Chinook, the power was out for five days. The NorthWestern Energy customer is in a rural area, but there are 40 neighbors there who rely on the utility. To residents there, NorthWestern, Montana’s largest utility with 500,000 people in its service area, seemed overwhelmed.
NorthWestern Spokesman Butch Larcombe said Friday that the weather event was the worst of its kind in 20 years. The power company responded accordingly.
“The damage to our system was significant,” Larcombe said in an email. “We made more 400 poles on the ground due to wind and snow and ice buildup on lines. All told, our crews worked to repair more than 2,000 poles damaged in some fashion by the storm. Many of these poles were in very rural areas and had to be repaired before we could restore service to some customers. We essentially rebuilt many miles of line in areas east of Havre and across Blaine County.”
There were meters servicing stock tank pumps and outbuildings in rural areas that remained offline for more than 10 days, Larcombe said. But the last of NorthWestern’s meters serving homes and businesses were back online by Oct. 12.
The PSC meeting will take place October 30 from noon to 2 pm at the Havre City Hall. The objective is to identify ways to improve NorthWestern’s response.