OKANOGAN – With questions and concerns swirling in the community, representatives from power utilities, fire districts and city and county government gathered to discuss the possibility of pre-emptive public safety power shutoffs (PSPS), which were made more unlikely recently with repairs to the transmission system.
Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) supplies a majority of the power to Okanogan County and its utilities, and had identified one of the three transmission lines serving the county as a high-risk asset. However, Dan Nunez, Asset Management and Risk Strategy for BPA, said an emergency had been declared to aggressively pursue repairs on high-risk lines, including the line in Okanogan County. This allowed the line to be repaired and removed from the high-risk list. Although there has always been a chance for a shutoff for public safety, the Okanogan County line is “no longer of primary concern.”
BPA updated their wildfire mitigation plan to include PSPS as a measure of “last resort” effective June 1. A PSPS could be initiated if weather conditions – red flag warning, 60 mph winds, low humidity – were serious enough and the topography indicated a risk for a wildfire. The shutoff could prevent a fire in case weather caused damage to a transmission line resulting in sparks.
Project Manager James Hillegas-Elting at BPA said that if such conditions were forecast, a team would convene immediately to look deeper into the situation and connect with utilities to determine if a PSPS was the right measure to take. Even if a PSPS was initiated, the BPA can re-energize in an active situation when that is in the best interest of public safety, such as powering water pumps.
Last week, BPA initiated its first PSPS in Oregon under the new program, which resulted in about 5 hours of outages, less than the 13 hours they had anticipated. Although their goal is to give up to 48-hours’ notice before shutoff, BPA Senior Spokesperson Doug Johnson said it all depends on how quickly a weather system moves in. Restoration depends on the weather conditions and how quickly crews can patrol the line and make sure no damage occurred.
Operations Manager Glenn Huber of Okanogan County Electric Co-op (OCEC) in the Methow said that his utility had placed all its reclosers on “non-reclose,” meaning that crews will need to patrol lines to inspect for damage before manually restoring outages, instead of power automatically switching back on. OCEC also has the option of a fire safety shutoff when need be. OCEC is planning community meetings to further answer customer questions.
Line Superintendent Ed Hartbarger of Nespelem Valley Electric Co-op (NVEC) said they also have reclosers set to non-reclose as well, and are patrolling in the heat to be sure the system is working well. They have warned customers that any outages will likely be of longer duration because of the time it takes to patrol lines.
Operations Manager Randy Bird at Okanogan County PUD said he works closely with BPA and the neighboring utilities to manage the system. Staff work around the clock in outages coordinating the system, which features many safety measures to prevent issues. A recent outage in Cape Labelle area involved a line that required crews to hike in 110 degrees to patrol it, resulting in a 4-hour outage. He hopes to start using drones to patrol the hard-to-access lines, which are all over the county.
In general, the PUD waits until the last minute to shut power off in an emergency, Bird said, knowing that customers are relying on power to run their pumps and hoses and more. PUD crews follow behind fire crews in the blackened terrain, and take fire shelter training. When a Fire Chief or Incident Commander requests a power shutoff, the PUD acts for the safety of fire crews and the public.
Since the PUD has four feeds serving the county, through which all of OCEC and some of NVEC are also fed, power can usually be restored, even if one or two lines are lost. Okanogan PUD General Manager Steve Taylor said in the Cold Springs fire last September, it had the unique situation in which the fire’s location affected all of the major transmission lines at different times, causing the county to go dark.
Instead, even if one or two of BPA’s lines was de-energized for a PSPS, the PUD could switch customers to a different source and get power back on, or even prevent power from ever being lost to the customer.
Emergency notices are sent through Okanogan County Alerts, which anyone can sign up for at www.okanogancounty.org (click on the Emergency Alert System icon). Utilities will also send out notices if power shutoffs are anticipated. Utilities can be reached for questions: OCEC – www.ocec.coop, 509-996-2228; NVEC – www.nvec.org, 509-634-4571. PUD – www.okanoganpud.org, 509-422-3310.