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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Second day of rolling blackouts hits Spokane

UPDATED: Tue., June 29, 2021

The headquarters of Avista Utilities.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The headquarters of Avista Utilities. (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A second day of rolling blackouts struck Spokane on Tuesday as Avista Utilities struggled to keep up with demand for electricity in record-breaking heat.

With temperatures hitting over 100, thousands of Avista customers in Spokane experienced power outages Tuesday.

The temperature reached 109 degrees in Spokane Tuesday afternoon, the highest temperature ever recorded in the city.

Avista representatives announced Monday that the company was implementing targeted blackouts Tuesday between 1 and 8 p.m. in certain areas of the city in an effort to manage the load on the company’s electrical system amid record-setting heat.

Here’s what the utility said about the controversial planned outages.

What happened?

Approximately 24,000 Avista customers experienced outages Monday, said Heather Rosentrater, Avista’s senior vice president for energy delivery. Rosentrater said as many as 9,300 customers were without power at a single period.

The outages occurred when Avista’s systems in certain city areas hit threshold limits earlier than anticipated.

Rosentrater emphasized Tuesday that the issues with Avista’s system are with distribution, not supply. As such, the blackouts have been solely based on where the system is most stressed, she said, which is why “we haven’t been able to spread where those outages are occurring across different customers.”

“When people hear about rolling outages, I think they think about those that they’ve heard about maybe in California or even in Texas and have seen these spread across large areas in their system, and that can help alleviate when you have supply issues.”

Substations, Rosentrater said, are the “heart” of the electrical system, used to collect and reduce the voltage of generated power for distribution to customers.

The usage on Avista’s system was at an all-time high Monday, Rosentrater said.

While Avista made plans based on the forecast, the load was ultimately higher than expected, while some of the system’s infrastructure was unable to operate as planned.

On Monday, Avista experienced issues with four substation transformers.

“Two of them were alerted based on that temperature alarm. That would be a signal that it was based on age, that it wasn’t able to meet the run at the capacity it was rated for,” Rosentrater said. “And we had two areas that are up north that are more of our high-growth areas that had just much higher demand, based on the temperatures, than we expected.”

Feeling the heat

Monday’s high of 105 tied the mark set in 2015.

While the temperature was the same, Rosentrater said the prolonged heat that started this past weekend and significant customer growth in the last six years helped make this year a different animal. Avista representatives could not specify how much growth there has been since 2015.

In general, hot temperatures cause constraints on Avista’s system due to customers using more energy, while the heat reduces the power rating of the system’s equipment, Rosentrater said.

“We already have that derating based on temperature included in the information that we watch in terms of how the system can be loaded,” she said. “It derated even further than we expected .”

That this occurred at the start of summer, during a time when there is more direct sunlight, also contributed, Rosentrater said.

“It makes more of a difference than what people would expect,” she said.

Looking ahead

Rosentrater said approximately 21,000 customers were informed Tuesday of plans for more targeted outages later in the day. She is advising customers who did not receive notice to update their contact information.

Avista is asking customers to continue conserving energy through the end of the week. Accordingly, additional rolling blackouts may be needed, Rosentrater said.

As to whether Avista’s system is prepared for future growth, Rosentrater said she believes the company has “the right support in place” and “the right infrastructure to build on in place,” to look toward addressing the issues that have emerged this week.

The company wants to be precise as to not overbuild, Rosentrater said, which would result in higher, unwarranted costs for customers.

“Our No. 1 priority is having reliable, safe, affordable, sustainable energy for our customers, so that’s something that we have top of mind every day when we are planning our system,” she said.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said he heard Tuesday from many people confused over what exactly caused the blackouts.

Given the circumstances, Beggs said Avista’s plan for rolling blackouts one hour at a time seemed better than more long-term outages.

“I think everybody is going to agree that we, in our planning, had not anticipated the weather conditions that we had this week well enough and we could have been farther ahead of the curve, including Avista,” he said. “But knowing how Avista runs itself, I’m imagining that the next heat wave like this, they’ll be ahead of the curve on it in terms of minimizing the chance of equipment failure.”

The situation illustrates that upgrades to the grid are needed, Beggs said.

Since the start of President Joe Biden’s administration, the city has had lobbyists pulling for Congress to earmark money for grid upgrades and better housing weatherization, he said.

“We’re not done. We have more to go,” Beggs said, adding, “I hope that people will continue to do what Spokanites often do, which is take care of their neighbors the best they can.”

Tuesday’s blackouts

Rosentrater said Monday the goal was to keep Tuesday’s blackouts contained to an hour at most. Some outages outages affecting more than 100 people late Tuesday morning reportedly met that timeframe, according to Avista’s outage map.

The outages, as seen on Avista’s outage map, are listed below. This list will be updated as more blackouts occur:

South Magnolia Street, from East Rockwood Boulevard to East 29th Street

• Reported: 11:28 a.m.

• Customers affected: 104

• Restored: Around 11:50 a.m.

West Hill neighborhood, from around Mount Nebo Cemetery to Sunset Hill

• Reported: 11:45 a.m.

• Customers affected: 662

• Restored: By around noon

Latah Valley, from around High Drive Bluff Park to Forest Ridge Park

• Reported: 12:25 p.m.

• Customers affected: At least 1,550

• Restored: By 4:35 p.m.

Dartford, from around East Commellini Road to North Fairwood Drive

• Reported: 12:52 p.m.

• Customers affected: 804

• Estimated restoration: By 4:45 p.m.

Northwest Spokane, from West Queen Avenue to West Central Avenue

• Reported: 2:13 p.m.

• Customers affected: 233

• Estimated restoration time: By 5:10 p.m.

Northwest Spokane, from West Olympic Avenue to West Litchfield Place

• Reported: 2:10 p.m.

• Customers affected: 251

• Estimated restoration time: By 4:35 p.m.

Fairwood, from around East Chatham Avenue to North Addison Drive

• Reported: 2:27 p.m.

• Customers affected: 664

• Restored: By 3:15 p.m.

Nevada-Lidgerwood neighborhood, from around East Astor Drive to North Wiscomb Drive

• Reported: 3:03 p.m.

• Customers affected: 118

• Restored: By 3:40 p.m.

North Ash Street, from East Wellesley Avenue to West Francis Avenue

• Reported: 3:58 p.m.

• Customers affected: 165

• Restored: By 4:20 p.m.

Fairwood (second instance), from around East Chatham Avenue to North Addison Drive

• Reported: 4:26 p.m.

• Customers affected: 664

• Estimated restoration time: 6 p.m.

North Nettleton Street, from around West Columbia Avenue to West Rowan Avenue

• Reported: 2:13 p.m.

• Customers affected: 75

• Estimated restoration: Assessing condition (as of 5:24 p.m.)

North Mill Road, from around N Fairwood Drive to N Dartford Drive

• Reported: 5:20 p.m.

• Customers affected: 804

• Estimated restoration: 9 p.m. (as of 8:03 p.m.)

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