Most of us don't pay much attention to our power company until the electricity goes off. Then we realize how important the electrical grid is to daily life.
Well, "important" is an understatement.
"Absolutely essential" is a better way to put it. Without reliable electricity civilization as we know it can't exist. And this will only become more true as the United States, and the world, steadily moves away from fossil fuels.
Electric cars obviously need electricity to function. So when the ice storm that hit Oregon last Friday cut power to hundreds of thousands of homes in our state, the ability to conveniently charge electric cars became impossible.
The widespread power outages affected most people in Northwest Oregon, though, not just electric car owners. Wells don't run without electricity. Neither do most heating systems.
I've been critical of how Portland General Electric, Oregon's largest utility, has handled the ice storm crisis from a communications standpoint.
At a time when people were already physically in the dark, it was decidedly unhelpful for PGE to keep people mentally in the dark regarding details of how power would be restored to certain areas.
Tomorrow PGE is going to start holding daily press conferences. That's almost a week too late. PGE management should have been doing this during the entire ice storm aftermath.
The basic point I'm making here is that while the efforts of PGE employees to restore power as quickly as possible deserve a lot of praise, this shouldn't stop politicians, state/local officials, and others concerned with how public utilities function from asking some tough questions of PGE executives.
When a mass shooting occurs in this country, defenders of the gun status quo say, "It's too early to point fingers at the cause of what just happened."
That's wrong. Immediately after a disaster is the correct time to seek answers to questions that, when answered, can shed light on how to prevent future similar disasters.
I got to thinking about this more seriously after talking with a couple of people today about PGE.
We'd started off talking about something else, but not surprisingly the conversations edged around to the subject on everybody's mind after the February 12 ice storm hit. When will electricity come back on?
Which leads to another question. Why did the electricity go off for hundreds of thousands of people?
The people I talked with both had friends with some inside information about how PGE operates. Obviously I have no way of knowing whether that information is true. It has a certain ring of truth, though, and helped inform the questions that I believe need to be answered in coming months.
These aren't exhaustive. They're just questions that have been on my mind as a PGE customer who, at the moment, has gone five full days without electricity.
(1) It's well known that climate change will lead to more extreme weather events. Did PGE engage in scenario planning that included a polar vortex bringing cold arctic air into the Pacific Northwest that was combined with a moisture-laden storm moving in from the Pacific? (Which is what produced this ice/snow storm.)
(2) If "yes" to #1 above, did PGE plan ahead for how to cope with such a scenario? If "no" to #1 above, why wasn't this done?
(3) Has PGE engaged in adequate preventive maintenance, such as tree trimming/removal, aimed at reducing outages during an extreme weather event?
(4) Regarding that sort of preventive maintenance, has contracting out tree trimming/removal to private companies led to better or worse outcomes as regards storm-related power outages?
(5) PGE has reported significant damage to major transmission lines and substations during the recent storm. Ice storms are common in Northwest Oregon. Why so such damage to important electrical infrastructure from a foreseeable weather event?
(6) It appears that out-of-state utility crews weren't called in by PGE until several days after the ice/snow storm. If this was the case, why the delay when the scope of damage was evident early on?
(7) For several days PGE provided an estimate to customers of when their power would be restored. On the Monday following the storm, these estimates stopped being made. Who made the decision to do this, and why was it done?
(8) Why did PGE fail to hold any press conferences about its response to the electricity outages for six days following the storm?
(9) What steps will PGE be taking to help assure that hundreds of thousands of its customers won't lose power for such a long time when the next major weather event strikes Oregon?
(10) In line with #9, does PGE have plans to place electrical lines underground in areas that are prone to extreme events such as wildfires and ice storms?