Powering Montana: NorthWestern Energy find high-tech solutions to help customers

NorthWestern Energy President and CEO Bob Rowe (left) and Community Relations Manager Steve Clawson (right) visit Kalispell-area customer Dale Haarr. Photos courtesy of NorthWestern Energy.

By Katy Spence

Every month, NorthWestern Energy President and CEO Bob Rowe sends anniversary cards to employees, thanking them for their years of service. He already knew he worked for an exceptional company, but when a 45th anniversary card crossed his desk, that confirmed it.

When employees stick around for more than 40 years, you know your company must be something special.

NorthWestern Energy serves more than 718,000 customers across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, through improving customer service, providing diverse energy solutions, and investing in local communities. For more than 100 years, the company has worked to make all their operations safe, reliable, and personable.

Improvements in technology and an integral “business tech” team have helped NorthWestern Energy make a smooth transition into an increasingly tech-dependent world.

In 2015, NorthWestern remodeled its local office in Missoula, making it more welcoming and offering additional services to the public. While most utility companies are no longer open to walk-in traffic, Rowe said their local offices allow NorthWestern to respond more effectively to service calls and interact more meaningfully with customers. Technology played a big role in making this possible.

“Believe it or not, but that was a technology project,” Rowe said. “It’s old school, but really a technology-enabled project.”

With upgraded customer information systems, NorthWestern customer service representatives now have access to real-time consumer data. When someone visits or calls a local office, the employee they talk to can often solve the problem right over the phone. Rowe said the company is also ramping up its social media presence so it can continue to communicate with customers where they choose to be, rather than routing them through a larger centralized call center.

Beyond empowering customer service reps with real-time, detailed data, NorthWestern is gathering more data in the field.

“If you look at one of our employee’s vehicles, gas or electric, there’s a lot of computational power,” Rowe said. “Our field technicians have and need a lot technology skills, and they need access to good support from our Business Technology team.”

A large group of NorthWestern employees took part in the Day of Caring in Billings.

With such a huge service area, NorthWestern has a large communications network and is constantly working to improve it. The August 10, 2015 storm in Missoula was the first real test of NorthWestern’s big communication upgrade, Rowe said. A fierce thunderstorm tore through the Missoula Valley, uprooting trees and power lines and crippling a substation and several key transmission structures.

In the process of fielding calls and servicing damaged infrastructure, Rowe said the company got a good look into the effectiveness of the new system and the ability to organize the response and mobilize resources from around the company, including deploying crews from elsewhere across Montana.

Since that time, the ability to quickly service damaged electrical infrastructure has faced more and more challenging weather events, including a devastating winter storm in Montana’s Hi-Line last October.

Rowe said NorthWestern employees, combined with improved technology, made all the difference.

2017 Fast Facts
about NorthWestern:

Capital investment in Montana: $240 million

Gross investment in electric and natural gas infrastructure in MT: $4.8 billion

Operating expenses in Montana:$405 million

Property taxes paid in Montana: $136 million

Gross economic output in Montana: $1.8 billion
Learn More

“Ultimately, it was people in the field doing the work, but that work was aided by all the technology that can be brought to bear,” Rowe said. “The grid control center in Butte, dispatch functions, information in the trucks, and also the way we talk to our customers.”

Rowe said the next phase in NorthWestern’s growth will be to integrate remote outage management systems that will allow the system to “self-repair” certain issues. In the coming years, customers should also expect to start seeing advanced meters on their homes and businesses, which can be read remotely and even advise customers on how they can use energy more efficiently.

In the future, Rowe hopes large-scale technology upgrades and integration will help the company and customers use energy more efficiently, as well as increase communication and quality.

NorthWestern Energy works to create healthier communities

NorthWestern Energy isn’t just in the business of improving energy solutions, however. The company also has a serious commitment to improving communities.

Community Relations Manager Steve Clawson works with western Montana community organizations to help gather and distribute grants and donations. Clawson said the company gave more than $100,000 to universities, colleges, tribal, and trade schools across its service areas to fund scholarships in 2017.

NorthWestern employees worked with Habitat for Humanity on constructing a home in Missoula.

In addition, NorthWestern works with charitable organizations like United Way and Habitat for Humanity. Employees are encouraged to donate time and money, and the company will often match donations. In 2016, NorthWestern’s Community Works program contributed more than $2 million to support economic development, United Way, sponsorships, and employee volunteerism in serviced communities.

“We invest a significant amount of time and money into our communities,” Clawson said. “It’s important.”

Clawson said NorthWestern is committed to its customers, employees, and communities, but it also invests heavily in safety. The company regularly receives recognition for workplace safety efforts. However, this effort to promote safety extends beyond employees and customers.

A NorthWestern employee coaches a youth hockey team in Missoula.

“We invest a lot of time and money making sure our employees are safe, but we also spend a lot of time and money making sure our communities are safe,” Clawson said.

NorthWestern Energy partners with Ryan United, a private nonprofit, on the RU Safe program to help promote child safety in communities across the company’s service area through educational programs and employee training. Clawson said NorthWestern service truck operators receive special training to spot and respond to suspicious neighborhood activity. Through the RU Safe program, students learn that they can go to a NorthWestern service truck in their neighborhood if they ever feel unsafe.

“We’re highly visible in the community,” Clawson said. “Like you might consider running to a police car, you might consider running to one of our units out in the field.”

NorthWestern worked with the city of Missoula to install electric vehicle charging stations in a parking garage as part of a pilot project.

Part of being a responsible community leader is being an environmental steward, Clawson added. In 2017, NorthWestern Energy allocated $1.3 million to support fisheries, wildlife, and habitat improvement projects along the 550-mile corridor of the Madison-Missouri River from Yellowstone National Park to the headwaters of the Fort Peck Reservoir. Clawson said it’s one of his favorite things about the company.

“We have done a lot to protect the rivers and lakes and streams in this state,” Clawson said. “That’s a big deal. It’s something to be proud of.”

Rowe echoed this sentiment, saying that NorthWestern employees should feel good any time they see a river in Montana. He added that hydroelectricity is an important part of NorthWestern’s energy portfolio.

NorthWestern’s Spion Kop wind project east of Great Falls is part of the company’s large and growing use of wind in its electric generation portfolio.

In fact, more than 60 percent of the energy NorthWestern customers in Montana received in 2017 was carbon-free, having come from hydro-, wind-, and solar-generated sources. Through several renewable pilot projects, NorthWestern is working with Montana cities and universities to evaluate how adding more solar energy can help meet community needs.

With such an emphasis on service and quality, it’s easy to see why employees might stick around for four decades. The company has received national recognition for customer engagement, workplace health and safety, engineering excellence, and as United Way Business of the Year.

For Rowe, who’s been CEO of the company since 2008, it’s not about the recognition; it’s about the collective health of the company and community it serves.

“I love the people I work with, the communities we serve, and that we provide an essential service,” Rowe said. “If we’re doing a good job, the communities that we serve do better. If the communities we serve are healthy, that’s good for all of us.”

About the Author: Katy Spence is Staff Writer and Digital Content Specialist for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and she’s just finishing up the Environmental Journalism Master’s Program at the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of more than 320 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.

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