Avista incorporating potential power shutoffs into wildfire safety options

Published on May 09, 2024 by Chris Galford

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With the threat of wildfires a growing yearly occurrence these days, Avista announced ahead of this year’s wildfire season that its mitigation plans will now include Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) for specific locations during times of extreme weather.

Extreme weather, in this case, refers to combinations like low humidity and strong winds. The utility intends to notify customers ahead of any emergency shut offs in hot weather, so long as their contact information is up to date, but any such move could leave affected customers to figure their own path forward in times of already severe heat.

“Based on learning from other utilities who have implemented PSPS, it would only be used in the most extreme weather conditions,” Heather Rosentrater, Avista president and COO, said. “We have other operational changes we can make, and we have been working for years to make our system stronger and more resilient. However, as we encounter more extreme weather events, we want to be prepared for all possibilities, and this is now a best practice in our industry.”

The new option is in keeping with more than 20 years of Fire Safety Mode policy at Avista, which has allowed for temporary changes to power line operations during the summer. During periods of normal operation, lines make several attempts to clear a fault, so as to reduce outage times. In Fire Safety Mode, only Avista crews determine when it’s safe to turn back on, and power remains off until then. The trade-off is that it reduces potential fire risks, but increases service restoration time.

As of 2022, those policies were paired with a fire-weather monitoring system to increase information in the hands of system operators and field managers. Those operators also have the ability to change a line’s sensitivity if high winds or other wildfire risk conditions are predicted. Other wildfire-focused updates in recent years included increased vegetation management and grid hardening projects in high risk areas, like replacing wooden transmission poles with steel.

“We applaud Avista’s proactive approach to mitigating fire risk,” Tom Jenkins, fire chief of the Cheney, Washington fire department and chair of the Inland Empire Fire Chiefs Association. “By prioritizing safety and preparedness, they have demonstrated a commendable commitment to protecting our communities.”

Avista’s service area includes parts of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon.