Could a planned blackout happen here?

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) made strategic and unprecedented decisions last month to temporarily shut off power to large swaths of its California customers to avoid a potential wildfire disaster due to high wind conditions.

Schools closed, people scrambled to purchase supplies, patients in need of medical care were forced to evacuate, homes went dark. It was all part of public safety power shutoff (PSPS) events intended to prevent PG&E electrical equipment from igniting wildfires during strong and dry winds. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that, by some economist estimates, the shutoffs could cost businesses and residents more than $1 billion.

Great River Energy closely monitors how these types of disasters affect the electric system to learn from them and improve resiliency during disasters that can occur in this region, such as blizzards and ice storms.

Most of Great River Energy’s crisis planning is centered around major storm events and recovery procedures to prepare for events like Winter Storm Wesley, the worst storm in the co-op’s history, which damaged 355 power line poles.

It happened in California but could a similar widespread, planned outage happen here in the Midwest?

Natural disasters or crises will occur, but utilities plan and prepare for them. And Dick Pursley, Great River Energy’s director of operations and transmission services, believes Great River Energy has the proper preparations in place to respond when they do.

The cooperative has a rigorous inspection program—including periodic ground-line pole treatments, annual ground line inspections, aerial patrols and infrared camera inspections of all its switches and substations, Pursley said.

“We also have a sophisticated fault location application to pinpoint where the damage occurred and dispatch crews accordingly to make necessary repairs,” he said.

Most of Great River Energy’s crisis planning is centered around major storm events and recovery procedures. For instance, in the first few months of 2019 alone, the cooperative dealt with both a polar vortex and Winter Storm Wesley—the worst storm in Great River Energy’s history. It caused damage to 355 power line poles and significant outage time to nearly 8,300 member-consumers.

These types of events highlight the need for operator simulation and scenario training. Annual training is also conducted for control center evacuations and black start grid operations—important drills so Great River Energy operations staff is prepared to deal with catastrophic events requiring back-up control center operations and restoration of the grid from a system-wide blackout.

Though it hasn’t enacted as widespread a procedure as a PSPS, Great River Energy crews have de-energized individual circuits when there is a known danger to the public such as an energized conductor detaching from a structure that poses a public hazard. In rare circumstances, Pursley said, the cooperative has also de-energized sections of line when notified of structure fires or wildfires.

“We will take any and all actions necessary to protect the public,” he said.

When asked if the blackout events in California would affect how Great River Energy thinks about potential crises it could face in the future, Pursley answered that he doesn’t expect the cooperative to change its current focus around crisis planning unless weather or climate trends “change drastically in the future” since the set of circumstances that PG&E is experiencing is unique to that region of the country.