As the likelihood of fires in the West increases, many utilities are creating wildfire mitigation plans and preparing before a Public Safety Power Shutoff—or PSPS—is needed.
Modern society relies on power 24/7, 365 days a year. Why, then, would an electric utility intentionally turn off that power?
The simple answer is safety. Although it is a priority for an electric utility to keep the lights on, the need to maintain safety is even greater.
WHAT IS A PSPS?
High winds can cause trees or debris to damage power lines and lead to wildfires. When such a threat looms, power suppliers may need to shut off the power. This is called a Public Safety Power Shutoff.
“The West’s ongoing severe drought—combined with a growing number of extreme heat events and their contribution to an increase in catastrophic wildfires—is, unfortunately, the new reality,” says Brent ten Pas, director of member and public relations at Central Electric Cooperative in Redmond, Oregon.
“Watching events unfold in California and how its utilities began to implement Public Safety Power Shutoffs, Central Electric leadership understood early on that formalizing and adopting PSPS protocols were needed to complement the wildfire mitigation plan it has had in place for years,” ten Pas says.
There are no state regulations mandating Oregon consumer-owned utilities to have a PSPS.
“CEC President and CEO Dave Markham invested considerable time with Oregon Public Utility Commission leadership to discuss how best to formalize the co-op’s PSPS plan,” ten Pas says. “The conversations proved fruitful. The OPUC now has a greater appreciation and understanding for the unique circumstances and challenges rural electric cooperatives face and what differentiates them from investor-owned utilities.”
Various factors are taken into consideration before a PSPS is implemented, including humidity levels, wind speed, conditions of dry material on the ground and vegetation near lines, warnings issued by the National Weather Service and real-time observations.
Thankfully, ten Pas says, CEC has not needed to execute a PSPS.
“Weather forecasts predicted extreme high winds for Central Oregon, which contributed to the Beachie Creek, Lionshead and Holiday Farm wildfires on the Cascade Mountains’ west side on Labor Day weekend of September 2020,” he says. “Though CEC crews stood ready
to deenergize power lines in certain high-risk fire areas, the forecasted high winds did not materialize.”
That same Labor Day storm is what led Blachly-Lane Electric Cooperative in Eugene—less than 150 miles to the west of CEC—to implement a PSPS on September 7.
One day earlier, the National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning due to extreme risk of fire danger in the region. In light of the warning, the utility put all substation reclosers to high-sensitivity mode. If a tree or limb fell on a line, the reclosers would not reenergize without a manual check of the line to prevent sparking in the dry, windy conditions.
Fortunately, Blachly-Lane territory remained unscorched.
“We implemented a PSPS while we were still developing our protocol,” says Jeff Jones, Blachly-Lane operations manager. “We feel doing so was the right call, and the situation dictated our response. It was a decision made during a crisis, and we knew we wanted to be more prepared for future events.”
Jones says the overwhelming response from co-op members was positive.
“Members were happy there were no fires and glad we deenergized,” he says. “Some were actually concerned when we were turning the power back on after the event was over. Most of the concerns we heard were about not being able to use electric-dependent water systems during the outage.”
Depending on the source of power, some PSPS events are out of a utility’s control. In much of the Pacific Northwest, the Bonneville Power Administration—whose transmission lines to utilities could be affected by wildfires—might implement a PSPS that would, in turn, affect a consumer utility.
Elsewhere, neighboring utilities may control transmission lines that feed into a local system.
In the case of Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative in Portola, California, Pacific Gas & Electric is a major player.
PSREC has had to prepare for PSPS events over which it has little control.
“Although we have not yet met the parameters for our own shutoff, our members are affected by PG&E PSPS events because PG&E owns our main transmission feed coming up the Feather River Canyon,” says Jason Harston, PSREC’s manager of engineering and operations. “Although PSREC has a process in place, PG&E PSPS events have made up the majority of PSPS outages our members have experienced.”
Harston says PSREC is required by the state of California to keep an updated wildfire mitigation plan.
In that plan, PSREC acknowledges potential consequences of initiating a PSPS: potential loss of water supply to fight wildfires due to loss of production wells and pumping facilities, negative impacts to emergency response and public safety due to the historic disruptions in internet and cellphone service during periods of extended power outages, and the loss of key community infrastructure and operational efficiency that occurs during power outages.
“PSREC staff work very hard to ensure the lights stay on for our members and conduct frequent line maintenance and vegetation management practices to ensure the safety and reliability of our system,” Harston says.
For many utilities, the PSPS process includes keeping consumers well-informed.
“Once we established our PSPS protocol, we sent out a press release to our entire membership,” says Joseph Hathaway, communications manager at Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative in Baker City, Oregon. “We followed up with interviews with local media—paper and radio—explaining the process and trying to mitigate any worries our members would have.”
Staff held town halls explaining the PSPS process in the four counties the utility serves, with local politicians, law enforcement, and fire and emergency managers on hand.
“We ran several articles in Ruralite about PSPS and also sent a personal letter to those members in high-risk areas to let them know they lived in a high-risk area and reassure them of any worries they may have,” Hathaway says.
In the meantime, OTEC has heavily invested in wildfire mitigation, with a year-round vegetation management plan that consists of clearing rights-of-way of potential hazard trees that could be tinder for a fire or create unnecessary outages. OTEC has buried lines in high-risk fire areas and installed sparkless fuses on lines in forested areas. In some cases, it is replacing wood poles with fire-resistant steel poles.
Eric Wirfs, OTEC director of operations, says consumer response has been positive to the utility’s outreach.
“Our members have been understanding of the risk associated with wildfire and trust our track record of reliability and safety,” he says.
When all is said and done, the decision to implement a PSPS is still not a decision made lightly.
“From the day we sign into this trade, our No. 1 goal is to be safe and go home whole to our families,” Blachly-Lane’s Jones says. “Followed closely behind that is keeping the lights on.
“Having to actually create the outage we work so hard to prevent is definitely hard to swallow. For those on the decision-making end, it’s a tough spot. There’s a lot on the line.”
Be Prepared for a PSPS
While Public Safety Power Shutoffs are more likely to occur in high-risk fire areas, all consumers could be affected by emergency events and should be prepared with a plan.
Below are specific steps you and your family can take to be ready for an extended power outage that lasts multiple days.
- Update your contact information with your electric utility.
- Identify backup charging methods for devices that require power.
- Plan for the needs of pets and livestock.
- Build or restock your emergency kit with flashlights, fresh batteries, first-aid supplies, medications and cash.
- Designate an emergency meeting location.
- Know how to manually operate your garage door.
- Ensure backup generators are ready to operate safely.
- Identify the unique needs of your family and loved ones in the area.