Yellowstone park proposes utility upgrades

Friday, November 8, 2013

The U.S. National Park Service manages over 84 million acres of land for both conservation and visitor use.  For wilderness parks, these joint objectives lead to the challenge of providing park facilities with electricity despite their remote location.  The Park Service has launched energy efficiency and sustainability programs, but many visitor and administrative facilities still need electricity for safety and comfort.  How should the Park Service balance conservation and development?

Old Faithful geyser erupts in Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National Park, the nation's first park, highlights the difficulty.  Most facilities in the park receive electricity from transmission and distribution lines owned by utility NorthWestern Energy, but the park's rugged environment, challenging climate, and relatively old electrical infrastrucutre lead to frequent power outages - over 250 in 2012.  Unlike much of the electric grid outside the park, facilities in Yellowstone lack modern communication infrastructure - a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition or SCADA system - that would let the utility diagnose and correct the cause of power outages from the utility's central offices in Montana.

As a result, Yellowstone and NorthWestern Energy have proposed to update the park's electrical distribution system.  Proposed upgrades include an automated, remote monitoring and control system, the installation of equipment buildings, back-up power generators and propane fuel tanks.  The proposed communication system would require the construction of seven towers for radio equipment within the park, generally located at existing electrical substation sites.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Park Service cannot approve the plan without conducting an environmental assessment of the impacts of the proposed development.  The Park Service has released its Environmental Assessment (10.5 megabyte PDF), which is open for public comment until December 6.

The use of national park lands for energy infrastructure can be controversial due to differing philosophies on the level of development desirable in parks.  At the same time, the Park Service notes that the Yellowstone outages have had negative effects on park operations and visitor experience, creating health and safety concerns and lost revenue for concessioners.  How will this balance play out in Yellowstone?

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