Extreme heat stresses Oregon utilities trying to keep people cool and prevent fires

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
Aug. 15, 2023 9:14 p.m. Updated: Aug. 16, 2023 12:02 a.m.

As Oregon continues to endure extreme heat, utilities are asking their customers to limit excessive electricity use to prevent power outages.

Oregonians are bumping up their air conditioning units or heat pumps to find relief from the triple-digit heat and keep cool. But that extra electricity use can cause problems for the power grid.

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Portland General Electric serves about 900,000 customers across Oregon, and spokesperson John Farmer said the high use of electricity during peak times between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. paired with high temperatures causes additional heat stress on the power grid’s infrastructure, like transmission lines, distribution lines and substations. That could lead to brownouts, losing power for a short amount of time, or blackouts in extreme cases.

Jose Quintanilla shows how his makeshift misting station mists the sidewalk by his place of work on August 14, 2023. "It's so worth it for the cooling it is giving us," Quintanilla says. "We had one of these on the overhang but it went out, so we rigged it here instead."

Jose Quintanilla shows how his makeshift misting station mists the sidewalk by his place of work on August 14, 2023. "It's so worth it for the cooling it is giving us," Quintanilla says. "We had one of these on the overhang but it went out, so we rigged it here instead."

Caden Perry / OPB

Farmer said higher than normal overnight temperatures make it more difficult for equipment to cool down. Oregon has seen overnight lows hover in the upper 60s and low 70s this week, according to the National Weather Service.

“It’s something we just want to keep our eyes on and say, ‘OK, this just means that over the next few days, our equipment won’t have cool enough air to cool off,’” he said.

As Oregon continues to experience extreme temperatures, power companies are figuring out short and long-term solutions to keep the lights on.

In the short term, Farmer said customers can help reduce heat stress on the grid by either turning off AC units at night or setting them at a higher temperature that’s still comfortable. He also advised avoiding electrical appliances like ovens, dishwashers or washing machines during peak times, and unplugging electrical equipment that’s not in use.

PGE also has other energy saving programs their customers can enroll in that offer rebates to customers that use less power during peak times. According to PGE, its customers helped reduce the load on the power grid on Monday by around 90 megawatts during the evening peak times. That’s the equivalent of the hourly energy usage of about 59,000 homes during that time frame.

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen weather events that those of us who grew up here 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, weren’t used to seeing,” Farmer said. “You look at how many air conditioners we had 30 years ago versus now. I don’t have the stat with me, but it’s a significant increase.”

Long-term solutions to meeting Oregon’s growing power needs include building more transmission lines and utility-scale battery capacity, among other projects like adding more solar and wind farms that could take years to develop.

Wildfire risk

High temperatures also bring increased fire danger in the Northwest. The National Weather Service has placed much of Oregon west of the Cascades under red flag warnings this week.

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In June, a jury found that the Oregon utility owner PacifiCorp owed around $90 million for wildfires its equipment started in 2020 — a ruling that made it clear electric utilities in the state have to take precautions during risky fire weather.

Farmer said despite this week’s extreme temperatures, he does not expect PGE to initiate a public safety power shut off, or PSPS, to prevent wildfires. Use of the last resort tool would potentially leave customers without electricity needed for cooling devices like air conditioning, heat pumps and fans.

Meteorologists with utilities monitor weather forecasts closely to decide if a PSPS is needed during fire season.

“It’s a decision that we do not take lightly and it’s a decision we do not make in a vacuum,” he said. “There’s a lot of collaboration with public safety partners, tribes, local fire stations …. So heat is, yes, of course, one of the variables but there’s so many more that contribute.”

Simon Gutierrez, a spokesperson for PacifiCorp’s Oregon utility, Pacific Power, said the utility also doesn’t expect to initiate a PSPS as this week’s conditions remain hot and dry across much of the state.

“Our equipment is designed and built to withstand high temperatures both during the day and at night,” he said.

Gutierrez said grid reliability comes from maintaining equipment to make sure everything is functioning properly.

Pacific Power has covered more of its infrastructure to avoid potential sparks and continued wildfire fire mitigation and vegetation management to avoid potential fires or downed power lines, Gutierrez said.

Still, updating the power grid to meet the changing climate is expensive and challenging.

Eduardo Cotilla-Sanchez, an Oregon State University professor of electrical and computer engineering, said grid resilience is a combination of many factors, from mechanical, electrical and human. Those factors, he said, need to be balanced for Oregonians to receive electricity reliably, especially as the state moves towards more renewable energy.

He said it’s important to continue to do more research on how to efficiently meet both residential and commercial demands.

“That’s going to be something that in combination with the rest of factors, like generation, is going to be really necessary to make (the electric grid) more resilient.”

Cotilla-Sanchez said utilities need to add more battery storage to the grid and have a robust portfolio of different electricity sources, like wind, solar and hydropower, to be successful, especially as the climate crisis continues.

“If these climate patterns continue and we are slow at trying to do some sort of the reversal, I think we are just going to be looking into a combination of infrastructure elements that might have to look a little bit different than what we have right now.”

Without upgrades by power companies, rooftop solar and batteries at people’s homes may become more essential to keep the power grid operating during the worst weather events, he said.

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