- Utilities in Oregon are rolling out a series of measures to prepare their systems for the 2021 wildfire season, including trimming vegetation close to their lines, inspecting their transmission and distribution networks, and deploying weather stations.
- The utilities are also formulating protocols for public safety power shut-offs (PSPS) — outages that are initiated during high-risk fire conditions — although these remain a last resort measure, they told the Oregon Public Utility Commission at a meeting Thursday.
- "We don't believe PSPSs are a long-term solution," Larry Bekkedahl, senior vice president of advanced energy delivery at Portland General Electric (PGE), said. "We're looking for technologies and resiliency measures as alternatives. But it will take time, and will involve finer levels of granularity, impacting fewer and fewer customers."
Last year, close to one million acres of Oregon were burned by wildfires, and in 2021, the Oregon Department of Forestry marked May as the beginning of the fire season in certain regions — the earliest in four decades. Also in May, the PUC released a set of temporary rules for utilities concerning reporting requirements and deploying shutoffs. Those rules extend out to mid-November, while the commission works on issuing a more permanent framework.
Pacific Power is preparing for this fire season with a combination of strategies, including increased inspections of its system and vegetation management, according to Allen Berreth, vice president of transmission and distribution operations at the utility. The utility is piloting technologies, like satellite imagery, which help it better understand the risk that vegetation poses to its system, is expanding its network of weather stations across its service territory, and recently established an internal meteorology department.
"This is a large step forward for our ability to develop weather forecast models and risk models that not only can determine weather impacts at a more granular geographical level, but specifically the risk to a utility system," Berreth explained.
Idaho Power, whose service territory includes parts of eastern Oregon, plans to spend a little more $81 million on implementing wildfire mitigation measures through 2025, according to Doug Dockter, the utility's transmission and distribution engineering and reliability senior manager. Its strategies also include vegetation management, conducting audits of these programs to ensure contractors are completing the work effectively, and a combination of aerial and on-the-ground inspections of its transmission and distribution infrastructure.
But conducting vegetation management programs has been a challenge over the last couple of years, "as California and others have placed a really significant impact on our resources that do this," he said.
PGE is also focusing on similar strategies, and has increased its vegetation management investments to more than $30 million per year to clear 4,100 miles of lines, Bill Messner, director of wildfire mitigation and resiliency, said.
When it comes to PSPS deployments, utilities are focused on weather forecasting abilities as well as communication protocols with customers and other stakeholders. Idaho Power is in the process of developing its strategy around proactive shutoffs and intends to have it in place by the 2022 fire season, Dockter said.
PGE — which implemented its first wildfire-related shutoff last fall — looks at a variety of factors when deciding whether to turn off the power, including wind speed, vegetation moisture content, temperature, humidity and the observations of field personnel, Messner said.
"We recognize the significant impact that turning the power off has on our customers. Therefore, it's important the decision to call a PSPS is based on an evaluation of those multitude of factors," he added.
Pacific Power also does not decide to initiate a PSPS based on a mathematical formula of hard criteria, but takes many considerations into account, Berreth said.
The utility views PSPS events as a tool of last resort, and "the goal of the wildfire mitigation program is to limit the frequency and impact of needing a PSPS," he added.