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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Avista says during customer town hall that it’s ‘committed to learn’ after controversial planned power outages

Avista Utilities submitted a plan to state regulators Friday outlining its efforts to transition to clean energy.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/The Spokesman-Review)

After planned outages to conserve power during Spokane’s historic heat wave last month, Avista executives said in a telephone town hall Thursday night that they’re “committed to learn from this event and to getting better.”

Tens of thousands of customers lost power when the company instituted rolling blackouts in late June amid several straight days of temperatures in the 100s. Between record-high usage levels June 28 and 29, and infrastructure issues resulting from equipment reaching threshold limits earlier than planned, Avista implemented the blackouts to better manage the load and prevent longer outages.

Representatives said calls for Thursday night’s town hall went out to thousands of the customers impacted by the extreme heat outages. A large majority of callers indicated they were from north and south Spokane, according to the results of a telephone poll taken during the one-hour event.

Company representatives that were present included Avista President and CEO Dennis Vermillion, Vice President of Energy Delivery Heather Rosentrater and Kevin Christie, senior vice president, external affairs and chief customer officer. Latisha Hill, Avista’s vice president of community and economic vitality, moderated the discussion.

“We are committed to learn from this event and to getting better,” Vermillion said.

Here were some of the notable questions and responses from Thursday’s town hall.

How is Avista forecasting for the future, such as higher customer loads and changing weather?

One part, Rosentrater said, is evaluating work plans with the electrical system for short-, mid- and long-term upgrades. Mid-term upgrades are those Avista can install ahead of next summer. Related, Rosentrater said Avista should also work on creating better public transparency for those work plans in the future.

Another part is to improve emergency planning strategies to give customers as much advanced notice as possible.

Finally, Rosentrater said the company is reviewing the historical criteria used to plan for extreme weather events in light of changing weather patterns and climate change.

“What has served us well historically for our historical planning assumptions is likely not going to serve us going forward,” she said.

Why did it seem like Avista targeted low-income areas?

Rosentrater said another reason the weather event was unique was the amount of customer demand from certain neighborhoods.

“Our neighborhoods that are more commercial neighborhoods during the week is historically where we have system constraints when we hit those peak temperatures,” she said. “What we saw with this event that it was more of our residential areas that saw the constraints.”

Avista representatives have said the outages were in areas exhibiting high stress on the system.

“It was based on what we call feeders and substations, and where the strain was unanticipated in each of those locations,” Christie said. “It was really based on the physics of the system.”

What about customers who need the power for medical equipment?

Christie said Avista is “really going to double down on our efforts” to understand, keep track of and communicate with those customers to allow for better advanced planning.

“We weren’t aware of all customers that could be impacted that way,” he said regarding the weather event, “and we will do a better job of that in the future.”

Did Avista turn off people’s power to sell the supply to California?

No, Vermillion said. The blackouts resulted from issues with parts of Avista’s distribution.

“Completely unrelated to power supply,” Vermillion said, “and obviously, we just would never sell to California or anyone else at the expense of our customers.”