AUGUSTA — People in the Augusta community are looking for answers, after a series of disruptive power outages over the last six months.
Business owners say they’ve experienced eight outages or other service interruptions since the start of the year. Matt Folkman, who owns the Wagons West Motel, Restaurant and RV Park, says one of them hit while he had a full restaurant.
“When the power went out – obviously we lose lighting and things like that, but we lose the ability to cook, our exhaust systems in the kitchen don’t operate, so we can’t even technically function at that point just for safety concerns,” he said. “That particular day, we actually had a table of eight that had driven in from Great Falls specifically to eat at our establishment. They all just had to turn around and head back home because the whole town was without power.”
In the motel rooms, Folkman said he’s had to replace more than a dozen mini-fridges that suffered damage from service interruptions, at a cost of well over $1,000.
Other businesses, from bars and restaurants to grocery stores and the town’s one gas station, have reported losing equipment, products and customers during extended outages.
Tia Troy, president of the Augusta Area Chamber of Commerce, says all the members of their board of directors have been affected.
“When it got to be eight of them since January, we thought, ‘Okay, this is really becoming a problem, and we probably need to address it as a chamber of commerce,’” she said.
Last week, the chamber sent an open letter to NorthWestern Energy CEO Bob Rowe and the Montana Public Service Commission, which was also posted on Facebook. In it, leaders said they wanted to make sure Augusta residents’ concerns were taken seriously.
“Our community depends on our businesses; our travelers depend on our businesses,” Troy said. “When we cannot do business and serve our customers and the public, it has a significant financial impact on every single business in this little town of Augusta, Montana.”
NorthWestern Energy leaders acknowledge that Augusta has seen an unusual number of outages this year. Bob Vinson, operations manager for the utility’s Great Falls division, said the company believes they were caused by an series of unusual events – all stemming from a pair of ospreys.
Vinson said the birds began building a nest in a power pole near Augusta. On May 7, the nest caused a short, starting a fire that temporarily knocked out the power.
The fire also damaged a “recloser” on the pole – a piece of equipment similar to a circuit breaker, which shuts off power when it detects a fault in the electric service. If the problem is only temporary, the recloser automatically restores power.
NorthWestern temporarily replaced the damaged recloser with fuses. In the case of a problem on the line, fuses will blow out, preventing a surge. However, the service can’t be restored until utility workers are able to manually replace the fuses. That meant what might otherwise have been momentary “power bumps” could instead turn into extended outages.
Vinson said it’s likely several other outages in the weeks after the fire were much longer because the recloser was not functioning. He said one was caused by ice and snow during a storm in late May, one is believed to be due to geese flying into a line, and the cause of a third is still unknown.
Vinson said NorthWestern has previously dealt with issues from nesting osprey in other parts of Montana – including along the Missouri River and Clark Fork corridors. However, he said it’s the first time it’s happened in the Augusta area.
“That’s a great story for Montanans to see a once-endangered species begin to repopulate in an area, but it does come with some challenges for the utility,” he said.
In order to discourage osprey from building nests on power poles, NorthWestern installed PVC pipes at the top of five poles in the Augusta area. The goal is that, when an osprey drops a stick to be used for a nest, it will simply fall off.
The utility also built a tall platform away from the lines, in hopes of attracting osprey to a safer nesting site.
NorthWestern leaders now say they’re confident the worst of Augusta’s outages are over. Rowe contacted the Chamber to respond to their letter, and the utility is planning to hold a public meeting in Augusta in the coming weeks, to answer people’s questions about the power issues.
“We take the reliability of our system very seriously; we take great pride in that,” said Vinson. “It’s a given that that’s our job and that’s our priority. We’ve been very focused on the issues and Augusta’s reliability since we heard these problems, and we will see that through.”
Troy said she appreciates the steps NorthWestern has taken.
“I definitely think that we appreciate what they’re saying, and we really hope that there is significant follow-through, and that we’re able to get the power that we need to live and to do business here along the Rocky Mountain Front,” she said.