We are in the midst of truly unprecedented times. Here in the Northwest, we have been on the front lines of the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. As we witness grocery shelves go bare and streets go quiet, it suddenly feels as if we’re living in some kind of sci-fi movie.
Knowing my background, many people have reached out to me to share that they hadn’t thought about the importance of electrical service until this time of national emergency. Especially when reliable goods and services are threatened and hospitals are pushed to their limits, losing access to electricity is a disturbing thought. Fortunately, the grid is in good hands.
I spent 20 years working for Portland General Electric, focused mostly on power supply. That is the area responsible for buying and selling energy on the wholesale market with other utilities to help keep the grid in balance.
Many people may not know that the electric grid must perfectly balance supply and demand for electricity every second of the day. If it loses that balance, regionwide blackouts can occur.
The most notable example in my adult life was the 2003 blackout that affected tens of millions of people in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada.
The electric grid in the West is highly interconnected from Canada to northern Mexico, so a blackout here can also become a multinational problem.
Such high stakes mean that electric utility workers take their jobs seriously, and they have plans in place for times of crisis. They know that hospitals, emergency centers and people working from home all need electricity.
For years, these organizations have been bolstering their abilities to work remotely, when necessary. They have also enhanced security and backup capabilities in areas where remote work isn’t possible.
In order to follow social distancing guidelines, utilities have shut down their offices to the public. Some have even required grid operators to live on-site at control centers as a precaution.
These measures are all aimed at reducing the potential of exposure to essential personnel who are needed to keep the grid up and running.
Our member utilities are an integral part of the communities they serve and have stepped up in big ways to help those in need. Even before Gov. Jay Inslee’s nondisconnect order came out, Inland Power, Clark Public Utilities, Tacoma Power, Lewis County PUD and Pacific County PUD had announced that they would take special measures to avoid disconnecting customers during the COVID-19 crisis.
Eventually, the region will return to normal and we will no longer need to continue to self-quarantine or exercise social distancing. At that time, we will greatly benefit from continuing to have some of the cleanest energy and least expensive electric bills in the nation to help get our local communities recovering quickly.
Now, perhaps more than ever, I am grateful for our low-cost hydroelectric resources, and I am so proud to represent utilities that are working tirelessly to provide stability during such an unstable moment.
More than likely, we have yet to face the worst effects of the COVID-19 virus, but the region’s electric utilities have a plan to keep your electricity flowing and affordable, now and into whatever future lies ahead.
Kurt Miller is the executive director for Northwest RiverPartners. NWRP serves over 60 not-for-profit, community-owned utilities across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, all of which are hydroelectric users.
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