Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Power outages cost not only comfort, but big bucks

If you could hear over your chattering teeth, that was money that was going up the flue during Wednesday's power outage in eastern Idaho.

Outages caused by severe weather cost the U.S. economy an average of $18 billion to $33 billion a year, according to a White House report released last summer. The hits come from lost output and wages, spoiled inventory, delayed production and damage to the electric grid. In 2012, when 8.5 million people lost power due to Superstorm Sandy, those costs rose to as high as $52 billion.

The report argues for the need to update the nation's electric grid: high-voltage transmission lines connected to power plants, local distribution systems, and power management and control systems. Seventy percent of these transmission lines and power transformers are more than 25 years old.

"Developing a smarter, more resilient electric grid is one step that can be taken now to ensure the welfare of the millions of current and future Americans who depend on the grid for reliable power," the report said.

What happened Wednesday in eastern Idaho was caused by complications at Rocky Mountain Power's Goshen Substation near Firth. At 5:11 a.m., the utility was required to interrupt service to some 49,000 Idaho customers because a circuit breaker at the substation was out of service this week for critical maintenance. The cold that barreled in Tuesday night created conditions that could have caused an even larger and longer outage.

As a result, the Balancing Authority  -- which controls the electric grid that serves power providers in the area through the Goshen Substation -- ordered power interrupted until the system's stability could be assured. This was a precautionary measure. There was no overload condition.

Idaho Falls Power customers experienced scattered outages between 7:45 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. At the peak of the outage, around 9:45 a.m., the authority had instructed Idaho Falls Power to shed 35 megawatts, almost 30 percent of the electricity being used city-wide at the time. About 3,500 customers were affected, but it was necessary to keep the system from crashing when Rocky Mountain Power attempted to restore its service.