Fire-Related Power Cuts Spread Outside California for First Time

Fire-Related Power Cuts Spread Outside California for First Time

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It’s no longer just California shutting off power in high-risk fire zones.

Oregon’s Portland General Electric Co. on Monday temporarily turned off power for about 5,000 customers near Mt. Hood, as California utility giant PG&E Corp. did the same in parts of its territory. It’s the first time that’s happened outside the Golden State, according to Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University.

The U.S. West has been sweltering through its second major heat wave in a month, and with strong winds raking the region, more utilities in other states may have to follow California’s lead. What was widely used last year by PG&E as an extreme response to preventing wildfires is now becoming more common.

“I think it’s very likely,” especially in places where people live near areas prone to burn, Wara said by email.

PGE has temporarily shut off power in the high-risk fire zone near Mt. Hood. The proactive safety outage is a last resort to protect our community in the face of extreme wildfire conditions and high winds. We’ll restore power as quickly as safety allows. — Portland General (@portlandgeneral) September 8, 2020

For Portland General, “the proactive safety outage is a last resort to help protect people, property and the environment in the face of extreme fire danger conditions and high winds forecast for the area,” the company said in a statement late Monday. The utility expects the outage to last 24 to 48 hours, though it may be longer if its equipment is damaged.

The power cuts aim to limit the devastation from longer and more dangerous fire seasons across the U.S. West. In California this year, wildfires have already burned more than 2.2 million acres, the most on record.

PG&E’s preemptive shutoffs that started late Monday could leave about 172,000 homes and businesses in the dark. Edison International’s Southern California utility said Tuesday it’s considering shutoffs for more than 66,000 customers amid high winds.

Power shutoffs are a fairly new and controversial practice, and their use in California last year triggered investigations while utilities defended them as necessary in the face of increasingly wild weather. Utilities in the state say they will need to use the power shutoffs until they can sufficiently harden their grids by installing covered power lines, stronger poles and burying some lines. They also are aggressively trimming tree limbs and other vegetation away from their power lines and installing more cameras and weather stations.

Power shutoffs are “a way to get around some near-term challenges, but in the long-run, the utilities can strengthen the grid to provide reliability,” said Travis Miller, an analyst at Morningstar, in an interview.

–With assistance from David R. Baker.

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