Oregonians may have to get used to the idea of losing power during wildfire seasons, something that became a greater possibility with the Public Utility Commission approval of temporary rules for cutting off electricity when power lines threaten to spark a fire.
The temporary rules govern how investor-owned utilities should de-energize power lines during the 2021 wildfire season. Those utilities include Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, and Idaho Power. A “public safety power shut off” (PSPS) would be considered a last-resort tool to prevent wildfires and keep those already ignited from further spreading into communities when extreme and dangerous weather conditions are present.
“With the earliest official opening to Oregon’s wildfire season in 40 years, the establishment of these rules was extremely important and timely,” Commissioner Letha Tawney said in a statement. “They are designed to help keep Oregonians safe by establishing criteria on how the utilities communicate about and coordinate during a PSPS.”
The temporary rules were adopted Tuesday. They increase requirements for communication and transparency between utilities and customers. That includes beginning communication and notifying customers in high-risk areas at least 48 to 72 hours in advance of an extreme weather event.
But PUC spokesperson Kandi Young said the rules do not indicate when a public safety power shut off should be implemented and what those thresholds should be when an extreme weather event occurs. She said that is up to the utility to decide as they have more knowledge about their equipment and facilities.
PacifiCorp is one of the Northwest’s biggest private utilities. Spokesperson Drew Hanson said creating those guidelines or thresholds can be difficult, but their goal is to minimize risk as much as possible.
“What we’re looking at would be extremely high winds, extreme drought conditions, so very dry fuel out there,” he said.
Ahead of these types of weather events, Hanson said the utility will send crews out to examine how the extreme weather is impacting its system. The utility would then communicate with local fire and emergency management crews to determine what types of impacts should deenergizing lines cause.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into it, so it’s not a decision we take lightly,” he said. “That’s why it’s really looked at as a last resort.”
Last year, Portland General Electric Portland General Electric implemented its first public safety power shut off in a high-risk fire area in the Mount Hood corridor, impacting some 5,000 customers. It also de-energized eight other areas at the request of emergency responders.
The temporary rules will remain in effect through mid-November. The PUC said will continue to work with the utilities, public safety partners, and communities to further develop permanent rules.
The PUC is expected to issue the official order early next week.
Correction: May 21, 2021. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Portland General Electric’s first public safety power shut off during a wildfire last September. It cut electricity to 5,000 customers in a high risk area on Mount Hood and then de-energized eight other high-risk areas.