NorthWestern Energy broke a 41-year-old record for natural gas delivery on Friday as frigid temperatures settled in across Montana, the company confirmed on Monday.

Butch Larcombe, spokesman for utility, said customers across the state consumed 302 million cubic feet of natural gas, breaking the old record of 298 million cubic feet set back in 1972.

“Our residential customers have doubled in Montana since 1972, but back then, our biggest customer was the Anaconda Co.,” Larcombe said. “We don’t have one big customer anymore. It’s a totally different market.”

Friday’s massive natural gas consumption was followed on Saturday by 286 million cubic feet. Larcombe said Friday’s large usage was likely due to the business week, with demand decreasing slightly Saturday.

Demand for electricity was also high, though it fell just short of a record. The peak load hit 1,728 megawatts on Sunday as the average statewide temperature hit a high of 2 degrees with a low of minus 17.

Larcombe said the record for electricity occurred on Dec. 15, 2008, when NorthWestern customers used 1,805 megawatts of power.

Temperature extremes over the past few days have plummeted. On Friday, Bannack came in as the state’s cold spot at 29 below zero, followed Saturday by Mizpah at 37 below.

On Sunday, Jordan recorded the state’s low at minus 42, followed on Monday by Chinook at 43 below. Since last Friday, Missoula has seen lows of minus 6, minus 2, minus 13 and minus 14.

The deep freeze that has clutched the region since last week is expected to move away this week, giving way to temperatures warming to 25 degrees and more by Wednesday.

But the warming temperatures also have brought snow and slick roads. The Missoula County Sheriff’s Department said deputies responded to dozens of accidents Monday and said resources were stretched thin.

The Missoula Valley could see up to 5 inches of snow from the latest storm. Seeley Lake and western Montana’s mountain passes could pick up 6 inches, while the Flathead and Missoula valleys could see 4 inches.

Larcombe said the jump in natural gas demand hasn’t hurt NorthWestern’s overall supply.

“We buy gas on the market and we store it underground in several places,” he said. “We store it for just this kind of purpose. We’re in good shape. This is why you do it.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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