FILE — Oregon power lines

A power station in Salem, Oregon 

(The Center Square) – Extreme winter weather left millions of Texans in the dark last month, but the event shined a light on the plans needed for future disasters, including in the Pacific Northwest.

In February, more than half the nation was blanketed in snow and ice from three converging cold fronts. The event left nearly 10 million households without power for more than a month, about a third of which were in Texas where 82 people died and businesses saw billions in damages.

Some 1,700 miles away that February, more than 300,000 households in Oregon lost power for two weeks amid an ice storm that downed more power lines than 2020's Labor Day wildfires. The story was the exact opposite a few hours north in Washington where most households escaped the month unscathed.

The outages people saw in Oregon and Texas represent two different scenarios, says Ben Kujala, director of power planning at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. What happened in Texas, he says, was a case of power plants failing to meet unforeseen demand brought on by cold weather, something the Pacific Northwest knows well.

In Oregon, the issue lied with a stressed distribution system bogged down by damaged power lines and fallen trees keeping crews off the roads.

"I think the challenge in Texas, and why people are talking about the winterizing, is because it was an infrequent event," Kujala said. "Our system is really set up to deal with cold weather because that's a regular thing.”

Different energy systems

For all three states, much of the outcome hinged on three very different power grids bound by a set of varying regulations.

In Texas, electricity is bought and sold in a competitive market system comprised of more than 650 different power plants managed by the state. Sending electricity across some 46,500 miles of transmission lines to customers is up to five major utilities whose resources are largely bound within state lines. Conceived in 2002, the system was sold by the Texas Legislature as a way of keeping prices low and consumer choice high, but critics have blamed it for leaving investments like weatherproofing power plants up to owners to decide.

Washington relies on a series of regulated public utilities created by a vote of the people and governed by locally-elected commissioners. The system sees individual utilities, power plant operators, and brokers contract for power distribution rights, which its supporters have seen as the best way of ensuring elected officials remain at the helm to make necessary investments.

Historically, Oregon's largely deregulated electric industry lets non-residential customers choose their electric providers since 1999. Incumbent utilities must offer all customers a choice of supply options regulated by the state Public Utility Commission at variable rates. Utilities must provide default service for eligible customers who do not choose a supplier, which is subject to traditional rate regulation, which ties a utility's rates to its costs.

The Pacific Northwest’s real advantage over the rest of the country when it comes to electricity is in its multi-state power grid. Nowhere in the Pacific Northwest better represents the edge Washington has over its neighbors than its 10 hydroelectric dams run by the Bonneville Power Administration. Based in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, the federal agency also sells power to California and Canada. The system helps shield the region from natural disasters states would otherwise be on their own to deal with, says Douglas Johnson, a BPA spokesperson.

“When you’re connected to Canada and down into parts of the Southwest, it gives you a very good advantage,” Johnson said. “Our ability to share large amounts of electricity really puts us in an advantage when we have severe weather.”

Plugging into the future

Many like Nick Garcia, policy director at the Washington Public Utility Districts Association, say more electric transportation and buildings could pose problems for the state’s electric load without the infrastructure to make it happen.

“We're very worried about system reliability and the impact of these new public policies, not that it can't be done, but we just want to make sure that we go into them with our eyes wide open, understanding where the risks are,” Garcia said. “I think whether we can actually get there from here is still an open question.”

More Washingtonians than ever are set to go electric in the coming decades. Reports from the state Department of Commerce suggest electricity demand in the state could shoot up 20% by 2030 and 92% by 2050. By 2045, the department projects up to half the energy used in state households will be electric, up from 21% in 2021.

Garcia says the state has a long list of options at its disposal, but they all depend on the timeline state lawmakers set for them and at what cost. Over the next 30 years, they could include small nuclear reactors or solar and wind power. More importantly, he believes the state’s best chances at keeping the lights on is planning to share more power across state lines.

Finding more power 

The prospect of rolling blackouts in Washington like those seen in California in 2020 is enough to keep state planners up at night. A 2019 report by the Northwest Conservation and Energy Council puts the chance of electric grid disruption at 17% by 2026. Those numbers go as high as 26% based on projected coal plant closures.

Hydropower, which accounts for about two-thirds of Washington’s power supply, stands to lose considerable ground if four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River come down. As the snowpack feeding Washington’s rivers freezes and melts faster every decade, Northwest hydropower is also at risk from longer summers taxing springtime snowmelt and cutting hydroelectric production short. Hotter summers drive air conditioning use, meaning hydro-production is falling as electricity demand is rising.

Bonneville, Douglas says, is already preparing for worse weather to come. Its retrofitting its electric tower designs to adjust to better withstand icing and high winds and fine-tuned the amount of spare towers, poles and other equipment they keep on hand.

A bill in the Washington Legislature this session could have a state commission conduct annual meetings with state utilities to address, among other issues, the prospect of rolling blackouts. It has not received a hearing.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.