Northern Lights Inc. provides electric service to geographically diverse areas throughout our service territory. One of the unique areas we serve is the Schweitzer ski resort and the surrounding community. This area presents some unique operational planning due to the snow, terrain and location.
Most of the distribution system is underground, the main line to the mountain is overhead. Our substation on the mountain is enclosed with underground cables connecting equipment. This is NLI’s only substation engineered like this.
In the winter, it has much more snow to contend with than most of NLI’s service territory. If an outage occurs on the underground distribution system, it requires lineworkers to dig out a lot of snow to get to the area they need to access. We have had few underground-related outages in the area, thankfully. And when it comes to the ski area, we have meters and devices throughout Schweitzer to power chairlifts, equipment and facilities. Sometimes, the best way to check a meter or a device is for a lineworker to take a chairlift up the mountain, check the device and ski back out. They don’t usually complain when this is part of their workday.
NLI has specialized snowcats that we use to access areas if we need to do more than just check a meter or piece of equipment.
The construction season on the mountain is much shorter than lower elevations. Snow can persist into early July, as we saw this last summer. Schweitzer has summer visitors from early July to Labor Day weekend. We aim to limit disruptions to any business we serve, including Schweitzer. Often, construction occurs in the fall and the window is limited before snow starts accumulating.
Another construction element that adds an extra challenge is the rocky, rugged terrain. Trenching for underground powerlines or digging holes for poles often takes extra time and effort. When NLI had a large transformer delivered for our substation near Schweitzer, a special truck was needed to transport it and navigate the slopes and switchbacks from the bottom of the mountain to the substation. Schweitzer has expanded and continues to do so. NLI coordinates well in advance to plan for materials and construction schedules to help meet the needs of this unique area.
NLI will keep the chairlifts powered and the hot chocolate hot at the Outback this winter.
Northern Lights Engineering & Operations Manager Kristin Mettke is an electrical engineer and has worked in the electric utility industry most of her career.