RMP On Line

At Rocky Mountain Power, we're focused on providing reliable, safe and environmentally responsible energy to nearly 1.1 million customers in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. We're also here to help customers find answers to their questions. The RMP On Line blog is an online source of news and information on a variety of energy topics. Join the conversation by letting us know what interests you and what questions you have.

September 2, 2016

Wildfires turn up the heat, but quick action keeps power flowing

Every day at Rocky Mountain Power and Pacific Power, employees perform a critical balancing act. The men and women who work to provide electric service to 1.8 million customers in six western states have to balance how much energy customers need with what power plants are producing – and maintain that balance every minute of every day, plus or minus 5 percent. Electricity is one of our most essential public services, and the only one manufactured and delivered in nearly the same moment the customer asks for it!

Some days are easier than others, but something is always happening out in the company’s vast service area – more than 143,000 square miles – threatening to upset that balance. Whether it’s errant motorists who crash into power poles, contractors or homeowners who dig in the wrong place, severe weather in remote places or just plain wear and tear on equipment, the challenges to maintain high service reliability are many.

When a problem causes a power outage, it often makes news, especially if it affects a large number of customers. In the company’s service area in southeastern Idaho, equipment failure caused two large power outages July 19 and August 29. In both cases, most customers were restored to service quickly. Still, Rocky Mountain Power employees are acutely aware of how disruptive service interruptions can be for customers.

What doesn’t typically make the news is the company’s response that prevents outages. Range fires in Idaho this summer destroyed 25 structures on main transmission lines, threatening not only service to Idaho customers, but customers in other states as well.

The Henry’s Creek fire, southeast of Idaho Falls burned nearly 53,000 acres and was 90 percent contained on August 31. The Tie fire, southwest of Victor, burned more than 1,000 acres and was 44 percent contained August 31.

Fire

Wildfires sometimes require Rocky Mountain Power to work quickly to switch power flows on its transmission system to maintain service, move crews and material quickly into the area to make repairs and then return the electric grid to normal operations.

On August 10, fire authorities asked the company to de-energize a section of transmission line between northern Utah and American Falls, Idaho, for the safety of firefighters. This request meant interrupting service to Malad City. The company’s main grid operators were able to re-route power feeds quickly so the outage to Malad was only six minutes.

Fire damaged 13 wood transmission line structures on a line running from north of Preston Idaho to American Falls; 11 structures on a line from Malad to American Falls; and one structure on a line running from north of Preston to Grace, Idaho. Seven local repair crews handled the jobs, some worked more than three days to complete the work.

Making matters worse, two main grid transmission lines supplying energy from Wyoming to Rocky Mountain Power, Pacific Power and Idaho Power were also threatened by the fires. While these lines have steel structures, smoke from a fire can still cause an outage if it’s thick enough. The particles of smoke can cause an electrical arc between the power line wires, tripping main transmission paths off-line and possible affecting multiple energy providers and their customers.

These events were managed with hardly any impact to Idaho customers. Grid operators worked with local managers to re-route power, isolate damaged sections and make sure repairs could be completed safely—no small task when the transmission system is operating in emergency conditions. The utility also works with large industrial customers who have special agreements allowing their operations and energy needs to be reduced to help manage such emergencies.

While this kind of excitement does not happen every day, it’s a good example of how complex the job of providing reliable electric service can be, and how a good portion of the work employees do happens behind the scenes. Much of the time, it’s the work unseen by customers that makes our modern lives, with all our electric conveniences, possible.

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