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As temps soar, utilities respond to increased energy demand

As temps soar, utilities respond to increased energy demand

Temperatures throughout Washington this week are smashing prior records and have residents reaching for the thermostat controls. While the increased electricity demand may cause some concern about placing strain on the energy grid, several major utilities and energy providers say they expect to meet the additional need, while others anticipate outages or are urging ratepayers to conserve where they can.

And still for some others, the current situation is nowhere near the demand experienced earlier this year during February’s cold snap.

“The fact that we are a hydropower region, not overly dependent on intermittent resources like solar and wind, is very helpful in this situation,” Seattle City Light wrote in a statement.

The public utility district (PUD) serves almost one million customers in the city of Seattle, where peak load demand is now 30 percent higher than on the average day in June. With extra crews brought in, the PUD is warning customers that power outages are possible.

“The heat is especially hard on underground infrastructure, and the majority of outages over the past few days have been heat-related,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, it takes more time to locate and repair underground equipment failures and our restoration speed is also impacted by excessive heat in the vaults that house that equipment – we are working hard to restore service quickly while keeping our employees safe.”

However, others such as the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) aren’t facing that problem. BPA provides electricity through its hydro dam system on the Columbia and Snake Rivers for 142 entities, including 28 PUDs and 42 cities. A total of three million people rely on the power generated by BPA.

Senior Vice President of Power Services Suzanne Cooper said in a statement that “even with streamflows below average levels, we are in a good position to serve our customers over this very hot weekend.”

One reason is the high snowpack level that, unlike prior years, is keeping water behind the Grand Coulee Dam. Additionally, BPA can also rely on 1,100 megawatts of power from the Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power plant near the Tri-Cities which was brought back online this weekend after a refueling outage. It is the largest power generating plant in the country.

While taking precautions with its 15,000 miles of transmission lines to prevent potential wildfires, BPA is also conducting maintenance on its transmission grid to maximize system leverage and respond to sudden rises in demand.

“Having all of our lines available will help relieve congestion on the system,” Vice President of Transmission Operations Michelle Cathcart said. “With these unprecedented temperatures, we want to ensure electricity can move freely and reliably meet customer demands.”

Although demand from BPA customers has increased by almost 10 percent over the last several days to 8,500 megawatts, Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Myers noted that it’s nowhere near the 9,560 megawatt demand the nonprofit experienced in February.

“The cold affects reliability more than the heat here, even on very hot days like this,” he said. “The cold is worse than the heat here. The biggest chance of reliability problems in Washington state – and probably in the Northwest – is in the winter, not in the summer.”

Yet, some of BPA’s public sector customers such as the Richland Energy Services (RES) may experience outages or blackouts due to strain put on the transmission system when distributing that energy.

Also expected to meet customer demand is Puget Sound Energy (PSE), which provides power to 1.1 million customers in eight Western Washington counties. Customer Communications Manager Jarrett Tomalin wrote in an email that the utility provider has broken its summer peak-demand record of 3,800 megawatts set in July 2009, with current demand at 4,300 and expected to increase further later this week.

Nevertheless, he wrote that “our system is currently performing well. At this point, we do believe that we have enough energy to supply our customers’ needs—whether with our own generation or energy we’ve been able to secure. We do have small and localized outages (affecting few customers per outage vs. outage affecting a large number of customers) that our crews are diligently working to restore in extreme conditions. As we go into what is believed to be the hottest day of the week, we continue to monitor our system around the clock.”

He added: “For their own benefit of cost savings and comfort as well as to help reduce stress on the system during these unprecedented conditions, we do hope customers will work with us to conserve energy. It will take a collective effort to get us through a historic day.”

Avista Utilities provides power to 400,000 customers in Washington and several other states including Oregon and parts of Idaho. In a statement the company said that it has “prepared for this situation by proactively shifting electricity load to accommodate increased usage in certain areas. The unprecedented and sustained extreme high temperatures are putting a strain on the electric system that serves customers.”

With outages anticipated, the company also urged customers to reduce their energy use as much as possible through this week.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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