Residents of Whidbey Island experienced more than five power outages in 2021, which is more than the average American does on an annual basis.
Representatives from Puget Sound Energy presented this statistic, among others, during a special meeting of the Island County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. Commissioner Jill Johnson requested the presentation after hearing from residents who were angry about recent power outages.
The frequency of power outages for PSE customers living on Whidbey was higher in 2021 than in the prior 15 years. The bulk of these outages were caused by falling trees during a series of storms with high winds. The worst of these was an island-wide power outage occurring on Jan. 13, 2021 that took approximately 24 hours for power to be restored at the island’s 11 substations.
“It is a very, very challenging situation when healthy trees are failing under excessive wind conditions and falling into the transmission lines,” said Ryan Murphy, PSE’s director of Electric Operations.
Commissioner Janet St. Clair asked if the utility company was seeing an increase in “whole tree failures” as a result of not having sufficient buffers along the right-of-ways where power lines run.
Kit Maret, an engineer for PSE, said trees left at the edge of a clearcut lot are weakened and more likely to fall during a windstorm. As an example, she said a recently clearcut area along Amble Road on South Whidbey witnessed the breakage of six poles caused by falling trees.
Commissioner Melanie Bacon said she was hoping PSE had an “aggressive plan” to bury the wires on the South End in the near future. Because power is transmitted from the north end of the island to the south, South Whidbey waits longer to have power restored during a significant outage.
Maret responded that underground conversions are only being done for small chunks of distribution lines, which transfer a smaller amount of power a shorter distance than transmission lines do. She said burying lines is not a feasible or reliable solution for transmission lines, especially when taking into account issues of excessive overheating or environmental concerns.
“It’s extraordinarily expensive, on an order of ten times,” Maret said. “It’s a customer rate impact. It’s actually more difficult to put lines underground than people realize.”
She added that a section of the “main feeder” line heading into Clinton towards the ferry is going to be getting an underground conversion. Some distribution automation will also be coming to the South End in the next couple of years.
Although the meeting had 55 participants, very few members of the public spoke.
Larry Behrendt said he had experienced seven power outages within the last 10 weeks, a stark comparison to the average American who suffers about one outage per year lasting four hours.
“I would also love to hear anything from any of the PSE representatives here that smacks even slightly of accountability for the fact that the performance we’re receiving from you is so below par what the performance is across the United States where, by the way, there are winds and there are trees,” he said.
Scott Lincoln asked the PSE representatives about the possibility of using submarine cables to connect to South Whidbey. Maret agreed it was possible and said it is included in a long-term plan. She said they have been looking across to Mukilteo as a possible route for the cable.
When asked by Johnson about the possibility of the next big Cascadia earthquake, Murphy admitted that having a submarine cable running from the South End may offer no reliability if transmission systems located adjacent to the island are impacted.
Johnson shared her surprise that Whidbey residents commenting weren’t more critical towards the PSE representatives.
“The public was a lot nicer to you than I anticipated,” she said. “They are not that nice to me, just so you know.”