By most accounts, it’s been 60 years since Oregon saw a storm that damaged the power grid to the degree ice and snow battered the Portland region this weekend.
In 1962, the famed “Columbus Day Storm” felled trees, powerlines, statues and military outposts with its typhoon-force winds. “The intense winds left over a million people in Oregon without electrical power, some of them for weeks,” reads an Oregon Historical Society account of the event.
Today, the Portland region is in a similar state. More than an inch of ice accumulation over the weekend downed thousands of power lines, leaving hundreds of thousands of people from Marion County to North Portland wondering when they might have their service restored. Portland officials said they received a staggering 2,800 emergency calls Monday, as residents reported severe power outages and dangerously dangling tree limbs.
The event spurred an emergency declaration from Gov. Kate Brown, along with a dire historical assessment: “Utilities in our region have never experienced such widespread outages, including during the September 2020 wildfires.”
Given the magnitude of the emergency, Portland General Electric, Pacific Power and others now face a question: Was this truly a 60-year storm, or can Oregon expect more frequent events like this as climate change advances? And if it’s the latter, what might be done to better prepare the system?
Ice grips Oregon
The utility most impacted by the storm was Portland General Electric, which said Tuesday morning that it had restored power to nearly 300,000 customers. Another 200,000 were still waiting for the lights to come back on.
“We’ve certainly experienced storms before,” said Steve Corson, a PGE spokesman. “Part of what has made this one different is just the intensity of the ice in parts of our service territory.”
Pacific Power, the Portland region’s other large power company, saw more than 80,000 customers without service at the peak of the winter storms, with some 10,000 still in the dark as of Tuesday afternoon. A company spokesperson said the utility had brought in additional workers from Utah, Iowa and Nevada to assist in repairing the grid.
Oregon power companies have, of course, learned in recent years that new tactics will be necessary as climate change advances. That point was driven home by the historic wildfires that swept western Oregon in 2020, highlighting the risks to — and from — power lines in an increasingly fire-prone landscape.
“We learn from every storm and every weather event,” Corson said. “Whether hot weather in the summer or an ice storm in the winter, we look back at what happened and evaluate: Is there a way for us to strengthen our system? If not prevent outages, then improve our response?”
But neither PGE nor Pacific Power was ready Tuesday to talk about what lessons they would take from the icy onslaught. Both insisted they were instead focused on restoring power to customers.
In the wake of stepped-up wildfire activity, Corson said, PGE has gotten more aggressive about trimming trees back from power lines, a tactic he says could have helped prevent downed lines in some instances during the ice storm.
A more permanent solution, such as burying power lines, often attracts interest from the public but is likely cost prohibitive. While approximately half of PGE’s distribution system is underground already, Corson and others said the effort to dig trenches and bury lines throughout the state is probably out of the question.
“It really comes down to cost,” said Drew Hanson, a spokesperson with Pacific Power. “And since we are beholden to our ratepayers in ensuring we’re keeping our rates low, cost is the number one thing.”
Ratepayer watchdogs tend to agree.
“I don’t know what it could cost, but I know it would start with a ‘B,’” said Bob Jenks, executive director of the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board, which advocates on behalf of utility customers. “The cost of the increase is just too significant for people to handle.”
Jenks offered up other ideas that might better serve power customers if ice strikes again. Those include even more aggressive tree trimming, and ensuring that PGE and other utilities have more teams and equipment ready to respond when such widespread outages occur.
When it comes to tree maintenance, utilities might get some help from Portland’s parks bureau. Tim Collier, a bureau spokesperson, said park officials planned to use money from the recently passed parks tax levy to increase the resilience of the city’s 1.2 million park trees. Collier said this “proactive tree care” would include more pruning and regular inspections of old trees to “address vulnerabilities before an emergency like this weekend’s ice storm occurs.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the bureau had received more than 400 requests for assistance with fallen trees and branches.
The climate change question
Erica Fleishman, director of Oregon State University’s Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, said unusual weather events, such as the cold spell that Portland and the Willamette Valley experienced over the weekend, could become more common with climate change.
Usually, Fleishman said, cold Arctic air is kept up north during the winter by a jet stream. But climate change can destabilize this stream, allowing the cold air to dip south into the United States.
Across the country, ongoing inclement weather is forcing states like Texas to ask hard questions about whether their power supply is prepared for future environmental conditions. '
Oregon’s seasonal wildfires are also likely a more pressing concern for utilities and the state entity that regulates them, the Public Utility Commission. Wildfire preparedness has been a central focus of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in recent years, and the governor has once again introduced a bill in the Legislature this year that would address a wide variety of issues, from building safety to forest thinning.
Without offering specifics, Brown’s office said Tuesday that the recent ice storm would help inform future discussions about emergency preparedness.
“Moving forward, there will be opportunities for the Public Utility Commission, the Legislature, and others to examine changes that can be made to help mitigate the impacts of severe weather events,” said Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for the governor. “The increasing frequency of unprecedented severe weather events in Oregon only underlines the need for urgency as we continue to take action to address climate change.”
While larger decisions will have to wait until the storm and its impacts have been studied more closely, at least one official tasked with responding to the emergency said local government responded well. Mike Myers, the director of Portland’s bureau of emergency management, said in an interview on Think Out Loud that he believes the city’s snow storm preparations led to a competent emergency response.
“We’re more successful today than not,” he said. “It’s impossible to get out of an event like this without serious power outages and loss of internet.”
While Myers noted the city has no ability to get the lights back on, he said Portland was coordinating with Pacific Power and PGE to make sure people in dire need of electricity, such as those with medical apparatuses, had an alternative power source.
In total, Myers estimated it may take up to 10 days for all the power to be restored in the city.