BHE opens operations center

By Ron Burtz

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Randy Westberg of Black Hills Energy (BHE) cuts into a hot dog to demonstrate the danger of high voltage power lines. The dog was placed on wires attached to the front of the dummy lineman in the background. The mannequin was then put in contact with the overhead power line on the demonstration trailer and given a jolt of 6,400 volts, which cooked the frankfurter in a few seconds. The dark spot on the front of the manniquin’s jacket is from smoke from the burn. The demonstration was part of the ribbon-cutting at the new BHE Southern Hills Operations Center in Custer last Wednesday. Use the My Black Hills Country app on your smart phone to scan the photo to see video of the demonstrations.

Black Hills Energy (BHE) cut the ribbon on its new $2.5 million Southern Hills Operations Center on the west side of Custer last Wednesday. Officials say the new heated shop, expanded office and outdoor storage yard will help the company better serve customers throughout the lower Black Hills service area. 

The open house at the new facility featured refreshments, service truck bucket rides, electrical safety demonstrations and tours of the building, as well as speeches from local officials and BHE representatives. 

BHE director of operations Mark Erye said “safety is first” with the company. He applauded the line workers in the Southern Hills region for their record of 4,628 days, or 12.5 years, without a lost-time accident. 

“This work group leads the whole company in safety,” said Erye.  

Operations manager Ken Meirose said the new headquarters, which combines the functions of the old downtown office and the storage yard and steel building located at the substation on Washington Street, is saving time and frustration.

“There was a lot of wasted time going back and forth,” said Meirose.

He said in the past “there were days we did not make our neighbors very happy. If we had meetings … we would take up people’s parking spaces for their businesses, clog up the alley with big trucks.”

Meirose said he was glad the equipment and parts that used to be stored near French Creek had already been moved to the new building before the flood hit Custer in early August when the entire area was covered with several feet of water.  

“We had mud and junk all throughout,” said Meirose, adding that the water ruined the insulation inside the old building and caused over $200,000 in damage between impacts to the substation and the building. 

Meirose said if the trucks had been stored at the Washington Street yard they would not have been available to work on fixing the power outage caused by the flood waters. 

Another advantage of the new heated garage at the new facility, according to Meirose, is that the trucks will be more ready to go when the weather is bad, which is when most outages occur. 

He said hydraulic trucks work better when stored in a heated garage and they also don’t collect a dangerous coating of ice and snow as used to happen when they were kept outdoors. 

Other advantages of the move include better lighted and more comfortable quarters for the office staff, better working conditions for the linemen and improved technology that includes video conferencing.

“We can have video meetings with anybody in the company,” said Meirose, “whether they’re in Arkansas or Colorado or Cody, Wyo.” 

Projects yet to be completed include building pole bins and moving replacement power poles from the old yard. Paving of the road to the facility from Hwy. 16 is set to begin at the end of the month. 

That project will solve a problem that has been an irritant to many drivers this summer — the water which constantly runs from the approach of Little Teton and French roads across the highway and toward the creek. 

Meirose says, as part of the paving project of the driveway to the operations center, a catch basin will be built and the water piped under the driveway to a large culvert which carries runoff under the highway.

The construction project, which started over two years ago, was lengthened by the wet weather of the last two summers by as much as four months. 

“The weather tore us up,” said Meirose.

One thing that won’t change with the new facility is the availability of a payment drop box in Custer. BHE officials had considered dropping the service, but decided later to put a drop box at the new headquarters for utility payments by check. 

The old BHE office next to Black Hills Burger & Bun on Mt. Rushmore Road is vacant and will be sold. 

Officials said they didn’t know exactly how long  BHE had been in the building, but senior program manager Mutch Usera, who has been with the company for 46 years, said the Custer office was there when he started working at what used to be known as Black Hills Power and Light. 

“I remember me and Thomas Edison driving by and saying, ‘That’s a nice building,’” joked Usera.