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Shawn Vestal: The heat-wave blackouts came packaged in a communications breakdown

UPDATED: Tue., June 29, 2021

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

In attempting to sort through the communications fiasco that accompanied the arrival of rolling blackouts, it seems clear that whatever surprises Avista faced, it also had to have been aware that blackouts would be a possibility at some point.

Perhaps an unlikely possibility. Maybe a very, very unlikely one.

But a possibility.

The question is why Avista didn’t tell that to ratepayers before the fans stopped spinning.

Avista’s challenges during the heat wave are significant. Trying to second-guess the way it and others operate within the complicated power supply network, with soaring usage as people everywhere struggle to avoid the brutal heat, would be a fool’s errand. It may be that the conditions that led the utility to start shutting off people’s power as temperatures were peaking Monday were unavoidable and necessary, an understandable result of crisis.

What seems more clearly avoidable and unnecessary, on the other hand, was the fact that the possibility of rolling blackouts was not conveyed to the public. That people were not told – loudly and aggressively, with the full force of Avista’s considerable communications apparatus, or even quietly and loaded with qualifications – to be aware that this might happen.

Instead, hours after thousands of people lost power in the heat of Monday afternoon Avista’s spin machine groaned into action, issuing a weasel-worded statement that “some Avista customers are experiencing unplanned power outages” and then another headlined “Avista acknowledges heat-related outages … “

I imagine the 8,000-plus people without power were grateful for the acknowledgement.

It was after 8 p.m. Monday when the utility trotted out a VP to speak to the public.

That executive, Heather Rosentrater, said the utility had been surprised by the degree and speed with which power usage increased, and that the high temperatures “caused our system to react in a way that was unanticipated.”

But she also said this: “We planned for this. We had the forecast.”

Weird. Because we also had the forecast. The weather forecast, at least. All of us did. For days and days. And because of this forecast, we were doing a little planning, too – figuring out how to manage a historic heat wave.

Every single one of us, from the air-conditioned fortunate to those on the blistering streets, has been mustering resources, thinking of hydration and shade, trying to stay healthy and safe, coming up with plans to protect vulnerable people, ensuring Fido is well watered and cooled, etc.

And yet we were not planning for rolling blackouts. Not only had we not been told they might be coming – even as a remote possibility – we’d been assured that we were not at risk of them here in the hydropower wonderland.

Last week, the Bonneville Power Administration said it was prepared for heat waves and did not anticipate rolling blackouts, like those that have affected other parts of the country when power use soars.

“We’re in pretty good shape,” spokesman Doug Johnson told The Associated Press.

A few weeks before that, representatives of Avista, BPA and others sounded a similar note in a story reported by Amy Edelen of The Spokesman-Review: Despite forecasts of significant energy shortfalls all around the country, we were not at risk of rolling blackouts.

No, these officials insisted, the risk was just that prices would go up.

In the case of a shortage or supply emergency, Ben Kujala, director of planning for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said “it’s something that will have impacts. Now, those impacts are not that the lights are going to go out. Generally, it’s that the power is more expensive.”

Then the lights went out.

This is a twofold problem. It’s bad enough that we’re at a point where Avista can’t accurately plan to keep the lights on during weather that – as unprecedented as it is – is likely to become more and more common. Even if the utility did its absolute best on that front, and even if overall responsibility for that breakdown does not belong simply and clearly on its doorstep, this is a major problem.

But it’s appalling that the utility’s leadership didn’t take more vigorous steps to alert the public to this possibility, did a lousy job of preparing individual customers for the shocking absence of power on Monday, and struggled afterward to catch up with its responsibilities to communicate the facts with the public.

It’s still not clear, at least to me, how to reconcile Rosentrater’s statements Monday night that Avista had both planned for this eventuality and been taken by surprise by it.

I called the utility on Tuesday and left messages in the hopes that someone would try to address some of these questions. I wanted to understand just how big a surprise Monday afternoon was to those who had read the forecasts and made the plans. I wanted to hear what they thought of the idea that they could have, and should have, issued warnings, even if these possibilities were remote.

It’s easy to blame others for not predicting the future when trouble arrives, after all, and it’s easy to bash the monolithic Avista. Sometimes too easy. Maybe I’m just being grouchy from the heat.

But no one returned my calls to offer a contradictory view, and the answers I saw in reporting from news conferences Monday and Tuesday shed little light on the question.

At the end of the day, it just defies belief to suggest Avista was completely, utterly blindsided by what happened this week.

Its customers shouldn’t have been, either.

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