Jun. 27—You live where neighbors are few and are more likely to see a curlew than a utility crew.
The phrase "end of the line" typically refers to less than ideal circumstances.
And this can be true for utility customers who reside in places served by long and lonely powerlines.
Urban customers of NorthWestern Energy in Montana tend to experience shorter duration power outages than rural customers.
NorthWestern Energy measures and reports the reliability of service to its state and federal regulators.
The utility pondered how to improve reliability to rural customers in a rural state. One possible remedy emerged with the Beck Hill Microgrid north of Deer Lodge.
The solar array installation, which cost $604,000, features 132 panels, as well as a controls and battery container on a quarter acre of land. The Clark Fork River is one near-at-hand bookend and Interstate 90 is another.
NorthWestern Energy launched this pilot project in 2015 to determine whether a small solar facility could kick in and provide power stored in batteries when electricity failed to the 17 customers in its vicinity.
Now, seven years later, the utility reports that the Beck Hill Microgrid seems to be working.
To date, just as thunderstorm season looms, the installation has kicked in to action about 16 times, providing automated backup power and then returning customers to the grid once power is restored.
"It has worked as designed," said Jon Shafer, manager of system innovation for NorthWestern Energy. "It's kind of a new tool in our tool box."
NorthWestern Energy said it is using what has been learned with the Beck Hill project to study other locations in Montana where similar installations could improve reliability for rural customers. Shafer said the central question is, "How do we get storage on the system to increase reliability for our end-of-the-line customers?"
The Microgrid includes a 40-kilowatt solar system paired with a battery bank. It can provide 80 kilowatts of energy for about two hours.
On a recent day when battleship-gray clouds obscured the sun, the Microgrid continued to generate power.
Today, solar power accounts for a tiny fraction of the electricity generated to serve customers of NorthWestern Energy in Montana. Solar generation was roughly 0.5% in 2021. Hydoelectric facilities provided about 34.6% of power, followed by coal-fired power plants, wind turbines and natural gas plants.
Most of the company's wind power comes from contracted sources.
Wind is more reliable than solar during Montana's long, dark winters. But wind generation is intermittent, Shafer said, and is thus a power source that requires backup.
NorthWestern has said it sees its coal plant resources "as a necessary bridge to long duration, clean resources and technologies not yet developed."
The utility has set 2050 as a target year for reaching net zero carbon emissions.
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