Oregon Utility CEO Warns of Possible Power Cuts This Fire Season

Source: By Mark Chediak, Bloomberg • Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2021

Oregon’s largest electric utility is prepared to cut power in some areas to prevent wires from sparking fires in dry and windy conditions this summer.

Portland General Electric Co. is focused on safeguarding its grid to reduce wildfire risks and would only interrupt service to customers as a last resort, Chief Executive Officer Maria Pope said in an interview Friday.

“We focus much more on a daily basis on how we prevent having to do power-safety shut-offs,” Pope said at Bloomberg News headquarters in New York. “Should there ever be circumstances like we were faced with last year, or could be faced with this season given the drought conditions throughout the entire West, obviously shutting the power off is one of the tools we have.”

Cutting power to prevent fires is a relatively new and controversial practice that has spurred investigations in California, where utilities defend outages as necessary amid increasingly extreme weather. The state’s utilities say shut-offs must be used until they can sufficiently harden electric grids by covering service lines, strengthening poles or even burying wires.

PG&E Corp. in Northern California has been using power cuts to prevent wildfires for several years after its equipment was blamed for starting devastating blazes that drove the utility into bankruptcy. Nevada’s NV Energyand other utilities in Western states have also warned that they may need to resort to the practice during fire season.

Pope said Portland General has done only one preventative outage before, cutting off 5,000 customers in September as wildfires burned near Mt. Hood. The Oregon Public Utility Commission adopted temporary rules in May to improve communication between utilities and customers around shut-offs.

Meanwhile, the recent record heat wave has added to the threat of wildfires as vegetation continues to dry out and winds become stronger. Governor Kate Brown recently declared a state of emergency, citing an an imminent wildfire threat amid hot, dry, windy conditions and ongoing drought.

Last year’s fires were the most expensive disaster in Oregon history, incurring $622 million in clean-up costs, the state said in January.

A study of June’s heat wave found that climate change made the event at least 150 times likelier than it otherwise would have been. If global average temperatures rise another 0.8 degrees Celsius, which could happen in as few as 20 years, similar events could be seen every five to 10 years.

The recent observed temperatures in the Pacific Northwest were 4 degrees Celsius higher than what data showed to be possible.