The local manager of NorthWestern Energy said his employees on the Hi-Line are looking at a busy time in the next few years, with changes from replacing power poles — some almost as old as the Montana company — to how customers can pay their bills.
“We’ve got a lot going on,” said Havre District Manager Carson Sweeney. “Yeah. A lot going on.”
During the 105th annual meeting of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Sweeney talked about what his employees are and will be doing on the Hi-Line, in a district that handles distribution of electricity from Chester to Fort Peck and south to Big Sandy, and of natural gas from Chester to Fort Belknap and down to Big Sandy.
He talked about how the company started in 1912 in Butte, recently celebrating its 100th anniversary last year, and what it is doing to change how it handles production and distribution of power and natural gas and how it deals with its customers.
“As our CEO, Bob Rowe, would say, we’re building for the next 100 years right now,” he said.
Some headline-grabbing moves have been NorthWestern’s $70 million purchase of Devon Energy interests here in north-central Montana, and a request to the Montana Public Service Commission to approve a $900 million purchase of hydroelectric generation facilities in Montana.
Other visible actions have been replacement of aging power poles — Sweeney confirmed a question from Chamber Executive Director Debbie Vandeberg, that one of his crews had replaced a pole in the Bear Paw Mountains that was erected in 1918 — and upgrading power substations.
Other changes in the works will include customer relations, he said.
Specifically, how people can handle their issues and their power bills. Sweeney said that, right now, if someone comes in with a billing question, he has to tell them to call Butte.
The company will be hiring staff to do that locally, including right in Havre, he said.
“Come on in and we’ll take care of everything,” he said. “I’m pretty excited about that. We used to do that and kind of got away from it.”
Another change will be asking customers how they want to be notified if there is a problem with their service and when that service is restored. Sweeney said NorthWestern will be contacting customers to see, if the power goes out, how they want to be notified, by text, email, updating Facebook status — “That’s ‘You’re in the dark’” — and how to be notified when the power is back on.
“How do you want us to let you know, or do you even care,” Sweeney said, adding, “We are getting to the point, we will know you are out of power before you do.”
A major project in this area — and around the state — is replacing the poles out of NorthWestern’s 350,000 it uses for energy transmission. Sweeney said many of the poles are at — or past — their normal life, and the company is having independent inspectors check all 350,000 and is replacing what is needed. That includes many on the Hi-Line.
The company is in year three of a seven-year project to replace poles, he said, rather than waiting till the poles go down and the power is out.
“For some reason, poles won’t tip over during normal business owners,” he said.
Sweeney also talked about the purchase of Devon Energy’s assets, and the 30 fomer Devon employees now working for NorthWestern Energy.
He said the company needs to expand or replace its offices and storage in Havre, and is now looking at — in a proposal not confirmed yet — taking over, remodeling or adding to and then moving to the NFR Energy facilities that now are sitting idle.
He said NorthWestern also starting leasing the idle Sanjel Corp. property in Chinook, providing offices and storage space for its nine employees there.
Sweeney said it is an exciting time to have his job.
“There are a lot of changes for NorthWestern Energy, a lot of changes in the utility industry,” he said.