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State adopts wildfire power shutoff rules for utilities

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Workers cut tree limbs away from power lines Wednesday along Columbus Avenue in Medford.
Pacific Power says it has made extensive investments in power grid infrastructure

Oregon regulators have adopted new rules regarding power companies’ ability to cut power to mitigate wildfire risk, but Pacific Power’s CEO says that his company has made extensive investments in Southern Oregon to help stave off de-energizing lines — and to ensure the last-resort effort impacts as few people as possible.

The new permanent rules adopted May 10 by the Oregon Public Utility Commission lay out specific communication requirements for investor-owned electric utilities such as Pacific Power for notifying state and local emergency management officials and the general public about Public Safety Power Shutoffs due to wildfire risk.

When a power shutoff is likely to occur, the rules require power companies to first notify “Public Safety Partners,” such as local emergency management agencies, the Oregon Department of Human Services, and critical facilities such as hospitals, communications facilities and others that “have the potential to threaten life, safety or disrupt essential socioeconomic activities if their services are interrupted” with a detailed map of the power shutoff zone.

The power company must notify people of the date and time the power shutoff will begin, an estimated duration and the number of customers impacted. They must provide status updates at least once every 24 hours until service is restored, publicize when the lines are beginning to be re-energized and when they expect the service to be completely restored.

To customers and the general public, the power utility must utilize “multiple media platforms to maximize customer outreach, including but not limited to social media, radio, television and press releases,” according to the order. It requires the company to provide a “24-hour means of contact” for customers and minimum status updates at 24-hour intervals until the conditions prompting the power shutoff have ended.

Pacific Power President and CEO Stefan Bird said Pacific Power’s parent company PacifiCorp has invested heavily in “hardening the grid,” with about $300 million over the next six years going “just for resilience.”

PacifiCorp has created “one of the most sophisticated meteorology departments in the western United States,” Bird said in a Tuesday meeting with the Mail Tribune.

He described equipment across the 10 states and 144,000 square miles it serves, and resources the power company has to track winds and weather patterns — with particular focus on wildfire-prone areas such as Southern Oregon.

“We have now deployed a couple hundred weather stations across that whole system — most of them concentrated in Northern California and Southern Oregon in our higher fire-threat district areas,” Bird said. “We want to look at a very granular level of information what’s happening in real time.”

Bird anticipates 350 weather stations monitoring conditions on the ground throughout the grid by the end of the year, which feed into the company’s weather centers equipped with “dedicated supercomputers.”

Advanced weather forecasting and situational awareness systems draw from real-time data from weather stations on the ground, according to Bird.

PacifiCorp’s in-house forecasting and risk-assessment systems combine new weather data with 30 years of historical data, which allows weather center employees to highlight risk areas and direct crews on the ground to strengthen the grid’s weak points.

A Pacific Power wildfire safety and preparedness webinar was held earlier this year for customers the company serves in Northern California, and similar presentations for customers in Oregon and Washington will be held at a later date.

New digital switches and monitors on the company’s latest power lines allow the agency more granular shutoffs, some of them remotely.

“As we continue to invest, that volume of customers that would be impacted ... can be narrowed.”

It’s part of a series of wildfire mitigation plans that began in the state of California in 2019 that were catalyzed by the November 2018 Camp fire, which was caused by a Pacific Gas and Electric Company line that ultimately wiped out the Northern California town of Paradise and caused 86 deaths. Bird said that since 2019, PacifiCorp has deployed similar detailed plans for Oregon and Washington.

“That’s when we took what we learned in California over a decade and immediately deployed it across all the rest of our states,” Bird said.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on twitter @MTwebeditor.