Tuesday, April 13, 2021
April 13, 2021

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Energy Adviser: How likely are blackouts?


It’s been a wild few weeks of weather across the nation, with snow and ice here in the Pacific Northwest, and historically freezing temperatures in the south.

Millions lost power. From Oregon to Texas, people remained in the dark for many days. But unlike the outages in Washington and Oregon, the Texas outages weren’t caused by grid damage. In Texas, power plants weren’t designed to handle freezing temperatures and simply stopped making electricity.

“The question I heard repeatedly was — could that happen here?” said Tom Haymaker, manager of energy planning and operations at Clark Public Utilities, part of the team responsible for wholesale power supply in Clark County. “The answer is complicated. But the distinction between damage to the power delivery system versus collapse of the supply is key, and unique to the tragedy in Texas.”

The majority of outages in Clark County are caused by trees and branches falling into power lines. The damage they cause must be repaired by line crews before electricity can reach homes and businesses again. Stormy weather — combinations of rain and wind, or snow and ice — raises the risk of outages dramatically. To preemptively combat them, Clark Public Utilities trims vegetation around equipment and power lines all year long.

Yet, even with proactive efforts, outages do occur. Crews worked around the clock to repair the damage and restore power within hours.

“What happened in Texas is different,” Haymaker explained. “In general, when our system has outages, it’s because the energy can’t move through a broken line. In Texas, the infrastructure remained intact, but there was no energy to move through it.”

Instead of letting the state’s entire power system go down, the rolling outages were a way to keep the grid energized, even as power plants stopped working and the supply of energy rapidly decreased. Maintaining a balance of supply and demand with that small amount of power kept the system functioning. When the power generating plants were able to start again, re-energizing the remainder of the system could be done in an orderly and controlled way.

“Could that happen here? While we never say never, the odds of rolling blackouts are much lower here. That’s because our power grid in Clark County is connected to a vast web of systems across the West,” Haymaker said. “If there was a catastrophic event anywhere in the region, we could be affected, but there’s more resilience and more ways to generate power and shift and redirect power in an emergency.”

The Texas electric grid is independent and self-regulated, with very little ability to bring power in from outside the state. So when generators began to fail in freezing temperatures, there were no backup sources.

“If the Northwest were in that situation, with generating plants shutting down across the region, rolling outages is a strategy that could work to keep the system operating,” Haymaker said. “But rolling outages are far less likely here in our region due to our diverse mix of generation. Between hydropower projects all through the Columbia River Basin, natural gas- and coal-fired and generators weatherized to withstand this climate, nuclear generators and renewable energy production from wind and solar, from as far as Montana, Wyoming and California, there’s a great deal more redundancy.”

Haymaker also noted that as a non-profit locally-owned public utility, Clark Public Utilities is able to prioritize reliability and invest in system maintenance to help the system be more stable. Outages can still happen, but the utility plans ahead and makes investments to prevent problems before they occur, both from system damage or supply disruption.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.


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