The Making it in Big Sky is sponsored by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and written by Explore Big Sky staff.
NorthWestern Energy’s Eric Cheney started with NorthWestern back in 2007 as a Journeyman lineman. Today, the Gallatin Valley native serves as the Big Sky town manager, ensuring the electric system in and around Big Sky is maintained and operational. He calls it a “rewarding and demanding job” and comments that Big Sky a unique grid to work with. At the end of the day, it’s all about keeping the lights on for local residents and businesses.
EBS: Eric, let’s start with some questions about yourself: when did you first move to the area and what brought you here?
Eric Cheney: I was born and raised in the Gallatin Valley. As my work led me to Texas, Alabama and California, it was always my goal to get back home to Montana to raise my family. I love the small town feeling of Montana and spend a lot of time outdoors fishing, hunting, camping and skiing.
EBS: When did you join NorthWestern Energy?
EC: I came on board with NorthWestern energy in May of 2007 as a Journeyman lineman. In 2017 I accepted a crew foreman job in Bozeman and then accepted the Big Sky Town Manager position in 2019.
EBS: What is your background in and what drew you to the company?
EC: I have been a lineman for 18 years and I love my job. Every day provides a different challenge or opportunity. I particularly enjoy working on NorthWestern’s 500 kV bare hand crew. NorthWestern Energy partners with other utilities from across the country in owning and maintaining the two 500 kV lines that run from Colstrip to the West Coast. This line is a major piece of the western grid for the U.S. The 500 kV crew is made up of 16 journeymen linemen from all across Montana. We work using both “bare hand” and “hot stick” methods, which allows us to safely do our work with the line energized to ensure no energy interruption.
EBS: As the Big Sky town manager, what is your primary role within the community?
As the Big Sky town manager I help build and maintain the electric system in and around Big Sky. It’s both a rewarding and demanding job given how unique the Big Sky area is and how critically important it is to keep the lifts powered up and the lights on in our local businesses and hotels.
EBS: What is the best thing about working in the Big Sky service area, especially with other local business owners and members of the community?
EC: I love being in Big Sky! Sometimes I have to slow down, take a look around me and appreciate how remarkably beautiful the area truly is. Interacting with members of the Big Sky community and business leaders, and working with developers on larger projects, make my job enjoyable. I am a member of this year’s Leadership Big Sky cohort and look forward to learning even more about the community and making some new friends along the way.
EBS: What are some important things the community of Big Sky should know about their utility provider?
EC: NorthWestern Energy has made significant investments in Big Sky and our planning teams have worked hard to keep abreast of the growth to anticipate future needs. In the last 10 years, NorthWestern Energy has invested more than $80 million in Big Sky. The Jackrabbit to Big Sky transmission project completed in 2016, upgraded the 69kV line to 161 kV. Additional upgrades were made to the substations at Meadow and Lone Mountain and then in 2020 a third substation, known as “Midway” was constructed in the mid-mountain area after a lengthy community involvement process. These upgrades have more than doubled our capacity to serve Big Sky and have improved reliability for residents, area businesses and visitors and allow for future demand growth.
EBS: What are some exciting projects NWE is working on to serve the Montana area—maybe such as renewable resources, any energy saving program for residents, etc.?
EC: NorthWestern is using new technology in Big Sky with smart switches metering. Smart switches have communications to the cabinet itself and when the switch senses a fault it will open and isolate the fault, then close in from a different feed. This minimizes outage times and improves reliability. All this can be done while the lineman is still in route.
At NorthWestern, we understand that almost everything we do to produce and deliver energy to our customers impacts the environment. With every business decision at NorthWestern, from the planning of new transmission lines to the licensing requirements of our hydroelectric plants to evaluating the impacts of new energy resources being added to our supply portfolio, we consider the environmental consequences. Our Environmental Policy establishes that we will provide cost-effective, reliable and stably priced energy while being good stewards of the natural resources and complying with environmental regulations. Already today, more than half of our electric generation companywide comes from carbon-free sources. We have programs and resources available for customers on our website (NorthWesternEnergy.com).
EBS: What else should the Big Sky community know about NWE?
EC: NorthWestern Energy is a partner to Big Sky as it continues to be one of the fastest-growing areas of Montana. The average electric demand growth rate in Big Sky over the past five years, 7.8% annually, is nearly eight times the amount of the entire Montana electric growth system. The significant commercial and residential growth in Big Sky means that the demand for electricity and natural gas is increasing, and NorthWestern Energy will be there every step of the way making sure that the community of Big Sky is prepared today and into the future.