Severe Weather And Blackouts In Oregon And Washington

Blackouts in Oregon And Washington

The United States has more power outages than any developed country. Unfortunately, blackouts are becoming more frequent in the United States due to an aging utility grid and severe weather. 

“This is not because the grid has changed, but because there is so much greater threat from extreme weather,” said Alison Silverstein, a consultant at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “And the number of extreme weather events of every kind have increased significantly over the last decade, in particular.”

Utility Grid

Decreased snow and rainfall impact hydroelectric production due to low water levels, and wildfires are causing public safety power shutoffs. Likewise, severe storms can cause trees to fall on power lines, flooding, and landslides, potentially impacting electrical service. 

Summer heat waves often create a spike in energy demand as residents and businesses crank up the air conditioning, further taxing the grid. Meanwhile, electricity rates are increasing across much of the country due partially to high natural gas prices. 

Recently, government officials in Oregon and Washington urged residents of high fire-prone areas to have an emergency plan for evacuations or blackouts. Installing a solar energy system with batteries is one of the simplest ways to keep the lights on, so these systems are becoming very popular in areas that experience Public Safety Power Shutoffs.

Are blackouts common in Oregon and Washington?

Historically, Oregon and Washington have had reliable power grids. However, climate change has been causing blackouts to become more common. In 2021, Oregon and Washington both ranked in the top 10 states with the most power outages, according to an analysis from Stacker. Ice storms, heat waves, and elevated fire risk have become some of the leading causes of outages. 

Family with candles

In February 2021, ice storms caused blackouts for at least 260,000 Oregonians, and in September 2020, Portland General Electric turned off power for 5,000 utility customers to mitigate wildfire risk.

During a heatwave in Washington in June 2021, thousands of households and businesses lost power. Puget Sound Energy said the outages were caused by high temperatures, not increased power demand from running air conditioners. Another utility company, Avista, scheduled power outages to prevent their equipment from overloading from heat and the increased power demand as people cranked up the air conditioners.

However, blackouts are growing more frequent across much of the United States and not just in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the average American experienced more than eight hours of power outages in 2020, and the overall duration of power outages has more than doubled since 2015, according to the Department of Energy. 

More frequent blackouts and the falling cost of solar storage batteries have caused solar systems with batteries to skyrocket in popularity in the last several years. Smart Solar Energy installs solar systems with batteries, so contact us if you want to learn more.

What causes power outages in Oregon and Washington?

There are numerous causes of power outages in the Pacific Northwest, but they are often related to severe weather.

Forest Fire

Public Safety Power Shutoffs

Sadly, more frequent and intense wildfires are becoming the new norm in Oregon and Washington as the climate gets hotter and dryer. Utility companies often use Public Safety Power Shutoffs to help prevent wildfires when there is a severe risk. During such times, staying informed about the current conditions is essential. 

High winds can cause debris and trees to damage power lines, potentially causing wildfires. Therefore, utility companies proactively turn off the power in high fire-threat areas and restore power within 24 hours of the severe weather passing. However, the Public Safety Power Shutoffs often impact much larger areas than where the wildfire is located.

Last summer, the Double Creek fire in Northeastern Oregon caused tens of thousands of households and businesses in western Oregon to lose power, including Portland General Electric and Pacific Power customers south of Eugene, Oregon.

Unfortunately, even utility customers that might not live in areas that do not have high winds or dangerous conditions, the electric company may still turn the power off. This is because they live in an area served by a power line that runs through areas with a high fire threat. 

When there is an elevated risk of wildfires, beware of red flag warnings issued by the National Weather Service that inform the public when conditions are ideal for wildfires. 

Downed Trees

In Oregon and Washington, about 50% of the land is covered in forests, so we have a lot of trees. Although trees provide many benefits and make this area beautiful, they can also cause issues with power lines. Storms with high winds can knock down trees, impacting electric lines and equipment. Despite utility companies taking action to prevent trees from causing downed power lines, it is difficult to avoid completely.

downed power lines

After storms with power outages, Portland General Electric, Pacific Power, Puget Sound Energy, Lane Electric, Clark PUD, and other electric utility companies dispatch crews to restore power. However, fixing all the issues from a severe storm can be a time-consuming process. Unfortunately, climate change will likely cause more severe weather in the future. 

Heat Waves

Unfortunately, we have experienced unprecedented heat waves in Oregon and Washington the last several summers, straining the power grid. Some of the hottest days ever recorded have been in the last several years. Electricity demand skyrockets during these periods as residents and businesses rely more on air conditioners to stay cool. 

Avista Utilities in Washington implemented deliberate blackouts in June 2021 because “the electric system experienced a new peak demand, and the strain of the high temperatures impacted the system in a way that required us to proactively turn off power for some customers,” said company president and chief executive Dennis Vermillion. “This happened faster than anticipated.”

Such outages are often a distribution issue and overloading and are not caused by a lack of power. As a result, grid operators will sometimes implement planned power outages for a finite amount of time to help mitigate the issue. Extended outages can be life-threatening. For example, if residents cannot run air conditioners or fans, residents are prone to heat stroke or hypothermia. 

Snow and Ice Storms

Snow and ice storms can weigh down tree branches, causing power lines to fall. Likewise, high winds can cause trees to fall on power lines or flying debris to damage equipment. Unsafe road conditions can make it difficult for crews to perform repairs, causing extended power outages. 

Snow Storm

Although it is far from home, there were widespread power outages in Texas in February 2021 after snow and ice storms left 4.5 million households without electricity and many without safe drinking water at its peak. Below freezing temperatures closed gas fields and coal power plants to shut down. This event demonstrated that some power grids are not resilient during extreme weather.

Closer to home, an ice storm hit Seattle in January 2012 and left nearly 300,000 people without power, mostly Puget Sound Energy customers. Then in February 2021, Oregon experienced the largest number of outages in its history, according to Oregon Governor Kate Brown.

At its peak, 330,000 Oregonians, primarily in the Willamette Valley, were without power. “While utility crews are making progress, the weather is leading to new outages faster than the pace of restoration,” Brown said in a press release. “Utilities in our region have never experienced such widespread outages, including during the September 2020 wildfires.”

Utility equipment failure

Historically, many power outages were caused by failing equipment. These issues tend to impact a geographical area for a short period of time. Transformer problems, underground cables issues, and broken insulators can cause grid outages and require equipment replacement. Maintenance crews from utility companies work to prevent equipment failure, but some outages are challenging to avoid.

How can I get information on power outages in Oregon & Washington?

One of the best ways to stay informed is via local news outlets and the utility companies themselves. Most power companies have websites with power outage information, including when they anticipate restoring power.

Family Using Flashlights

Electric Utilities in Oregon

Numerous companies and electric coops serve various communities across Oregon.

Investor-Owned Electric Utilities in Oregon

​Idaho Power Company: This company serves eastern Oregon and southern Idaho and is a subsidiary of IDACORP, Inc. The company has a service area of 24,000 square miles around the Snake River and its tributaries. Idaho Power owns 17 hydroelectric dams, three natural gas power plants, and owns shares of two coal-fired power plants.

​Pacific Power (PacifiCorp): PacifiCorp is an electric utility company in the western United States. Pacific Power is a regulated electric utility with service territory throughout Oregon, northern California, and southeastern Washington. 

​​Portland General Electric: It is a Fortune 1000 public utility based in Portland, Oregon, and it distributes electricity to customers in parts of Multnomah, Clackamas, Marion, Yamhill, Washington, and Polk counties, which is 44% of Oregonians.

Cooperative Electric Utilities ​in Oregon

  • ​Blachly-Lane Electric Cooperative
  • Central Electric Cooper​ative​ ​
  • Clearwater Power Company (ID)​ ​
  • Columbia Basin Cooperative
  • ​​Columbia Power Cooperative​
  • ​Columbia Rural Electric (WA)
  • Consumers Power ​
  • Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative, Inc.​
  • Douglas Electric Cooperative
  • Harney Electric Cooperative ​​
  • Hood River Electric Cooperative
  • Lane Electric Cooperative
  • Midstate Electric Cooperative, Inc.
  • Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative
  • Salem Electric
  • Surprise Valley Electric Corporation (CA) ​​
  • Umatilla Electric C​ooperative
  • ​​Umpqua Indian Utility Co-op
  • Wasco Electric Cooperative
  • West Oregon Electric Cooperative, Inc.

Electric Utilities in Washington

Like Oregon, numerous companies and electric cooperatives serve Washington state residents and businesses. 

Investor-Owned Electric Utilities in Washington

Avista Utilities: This energy company transmit electricity and natural gas to its utility customers and has its headquarters in Spokane, Washington.

Puget Sound Energy (PSE): This company provides electricity and natural gas to customers in the Puget Sound area. It has more than 1.1 million customers across Island, King, Kitsap, Kittitas, Pierce, Skagit, Thurston, and Whatcom counties. PSE owns coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, and wind energy facilities and has more than 3,500 MW of generation capacity.

​Pacific Power (PacifiCorp): PacifiCorp is an electric utility company in the western United States. Pacific Power is a regulated electric utility with service territory throughout Oregon, northern California, and southeastern Washington. 

Other Electric Utilities Serving Washington

Seattle City Light: This community-owned, not-for-profit provides electricity to Seattle, Washington, all of Shoreline and Lake Forest Park, and parts of unincorporated King County, Burien, Normandy Park, SeaTac, Renton, and Tukwila.

Snohomish PUD: This agency provides power to over 367,000 customers in Snohomish County and Camano Island, Washington.

Tacoma Power: This utility serves Tacoma, Washington, and surrounding areas, including University Place, Fircrest, and Fife.

How is climate change impacting Oregon & Washington?

The impacts of climate change in Oregon and Washington have been severe, and average temperatures have increased by over 1.5°F since the first half of the twentieth century. Severe, extended heat waves with record-breaking temperates are becoming common in the region. 

Reservoir With Low Water

The western United States is also susceptible to droughts, which can cause numerous issues. For example, decreased mountain snowmelt is threatening summer water supplies, impacting rivers, reservoirs, lakes, and aquifers throughout the Willamette Valley. 

Since 2000, there has only been one year that Oregon has not experienced at least moderate levels of drought. Yet, the Pacific Northwest is highly reliant on hydroelectric dams. When water levels go below a certain level, energy production decreases. In 2021, hydroelectric production in the Pacific Northwest was 14% below normal, but this also coincided with record-breaking heat waves.

“Obviously, water and energy are very much intertwined,” said Newsha Ajami, the director of urban water policy for Stanford University’s Water in the West initiative. “The interesting part here is that losing reliability in one is impacting reliability of the other. It’s hotter, it’s drier and people are using a lot more electricity as we rely on hydropower as one of our baseline power generators, but lake levels are lower.”

Meanwhile, record-shattering wildfires have been devastating local communities and our forests. The 2020 wildfire season in Oregon was catastrophic and burned over 1.07 million acres and destroyed 4,000 homes. Continued severe droughts could create similar conditions in the future.

Solar system being installed

The United States faces a growing challenge of power outages, surpassing other developed nations in frequency. This trend is exacerbated by an aging utility grid and escalating extreme weather events. Alison Silverstein from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy attributes the surge in outages to heightened threats from severe weather. The consequences are evident across the nation, with factors like decreased hydroelectric production from low water levels, wildfires prompting safety power shutoffs, and storms causing tree-related disruptions to power lines. Climatic shifts, including heatwaves, contribute to increased energy demand, while rising electricity rates, partially influenced by high natural gas prices, add to the complexity. Regions like Oregon and Washington, historically known for reliable power grids, now grapple with more frequent outages due to climate change. Various factors such as wildfires, heatwaves, snow and ice storms, and utility equipment failures contribute to power interruptions in the Pacific Northwest. The increasing prevalence of blackouts has fueled the popularity of solar systems with batteries as a resilient energy solution. In Oregon and Washington, the impact of climate change is evident through more frequent and severe weather events, affecting power grid reliability. Public Safety Power Shutoffs, high winds, and tree-related incidents are common causes of outages. While utility companies take measures to restore power promptly, the challenges posed by climate change raise concerns about future grid resilience. Information on power outages in Oregon and Washington can be obtained through local news outlets and utility company websites. The list of electric utilities serving the region underscores the diverse providers, including investor-owned and cooperative entities. The narrative also delves into the impact of climate change on the region, citing rising temperatures, droughts, and wildfires. The interconnectedness of water and energy sources, demonstrated by decreased hydroelectric production during droughts, highlights the need for sustainable solutions.

Installing solar panels on your home is an excellent way to mitigate climate change, reduce your reliance on fossil fuels, and dramatically lower your electric bills. Adding a battery bank to your solar system provides emergency power during blackouts. Therefore, solar-plus-storage is a win-win situation for the environment and homeowners.

Want to learn more about a solar energy system for your home?

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