PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As the Valentine’s Day ‘heat’ wanes, it may be difficult to recall that at this time last year, the majority of the Portland metro region was encapsulated under a sheet of ice. It left more than a quarter million people were without power, including some for several days still to come.
In fact, according to Portland General Electric, on February 14, 2021, over 288,000 residents were still without power in the aftermath of one of the region’s worst ice storms in almost 40 years.
As climate experts have predicted more severe unseasonal weather events ahead, KOIN 6 News spoke with Portland Utility companies and residents to reflect on last year’s storm and the lessons learned.
During the storm’s peak over 80,000 Pacific Power customers and 288,000 Portland General Electric (PGE) customers were without power. Though PGE told KOIN 6 News, over 420,000 customers experienced an outage at some point during the two-week storm.
Marcus Hibdon of Oak Grove was one of the many left in the dark last year. He told KOIN 6 News, the storm and the following extended power outage was unlike anything he and his family had ever experienced.
“I’ve never seen weather like that in Oregon, or really anywhere else,” Hibdon explained. “I remember lying in bed and every few minutes there would be this blue glow of a transformer or something on the power lines exploding. It was really eerie and scary, And I hope to never go through it again.”
Hibdon said he and his family were forced to adapt after they were left without power for more than a week.
“It started with one of those blue glows and then the power went out,” Hibdon said. “12 days in total we went without power, which meant no heat for us as well … We have a young child, so you know we bundled up, we wore hats and gloves inside our house, we cooked food and made coffee on our propane barbecue outside.”
As frustrating as the experience was, Hibdon noted the vast response from utility companies to try and restore service.
“There were power crews working constantly,” Hibdon recalled. “We saw them everywhere, but there was just so much damage. I’ll give them credit for doing the best they could but yeah, I’ve never been without power for 12 days. It’s like going camping in your own home.”
Both PGE and Pacific Power told KOIN 6 News the response was massive, but the extreme amount of damage and repeated waves of the storm severely slowed down service recovery.
“Over the course of last year’s February icestorm, we replaced about 250 poles, 180 transformers, over 330 cross-arms, and over 165,000 feet of wire,” explained Pacific Power Spokesperson, Drew Hanson.
While Pacific Power was able to restore service to roughly 85% of customers who had lost power within five days, Hanson said the constant waves of ice posed a safety concern for their crews.
“This storm came in waves, so there were multiple days of ice accumulation, one after another,” explained Hanson. “The safety of our crews is top priority during any storm and restoration event. So, when the ice just kept coming in on the lines, and as trees began to fall, that created an obstacle for our line crew members to get in there and start repairs.”
PGE said their crews ran into similar challenges as the storm claimed over 1000 poles, 400 miles of actual transmission, and almost 900,000 feet of distribution wire in a little over a week.
Larry Bekkedahl, PGE Senior Vice President of Advanced Energy Delivery told KOIN 6 News ice was their largest deterrent.
“It built up to over two inches of ice on power lines. And just one inch of ice, on a 12 inch piece of line is three pounds of additional weight,” Bekkedahl explained. “So you double that, and extend it to 1000 feet – That’s a lot of weight.”
He continued. “But even worse than the poles and wires were all the trees. We had to call some of our crews away because we had to wait for the trees to break and fall before we could come in and actually work it safely.”
According to PGE, it cost over $100 million to repair just two weeks of damage caused by the Feb. 2021 ice storm.
KOIN 6 News asked both companies how much money was issued in reimbursements and account credits due to the lack of service, but neither company was able to provide an answer.
For both PGE and Pacific Power, the storm was a learning opportunity which brought forth gaps in service and highlighted areas which needed improvement.
The companies told KOIN 6 News, they have made changes since the storm to help mitigate prolonged, widespread outages due to inclement weather.
“New this year, and not too long after the February ice storm, we added an in-house meteorology team of five meteorologists to monitor the weather and how it could potentially impact our systems,” Hanson said. “They’re providing us with that line of sight and reports every day, and that really helps with our situational awareness, so that we have much more information when we’re getting ready for storms.”
Hanson said vegetation management, the implementation of new grid technology, and infrastructure upgrades have helped make Pacific Power services more resilient.
The company has also continued to expand its underground power system. According to Hanson, in Oregon alone Pacific Power has roughly 20,000 miles of distribution lines serving over 600,000 customers, 30% of which are now underground.
For PGE, the storm illuminated communication gaps within the company, which they have since been able to address.
“What we struggled with was to be able to communicate with customers. How long will they be out?” Bekkedahl explained. “We were unable to communicate that information effectively. So that was our biggest learning from this type of storm.
He continued, “So we started programs. Now we send text messages out to our customers with the best estimated times and our full process working from the beginning to the end of the storm.”
Bekkedahl said the company sought guidance from Florida Power and Light and others to learn how to best maintain service in the face of hurricanes and other severe weather events.
Looking forward, as extreme weather becomes more frequent, Bekkedahl said PGE is focused on improving ‘resiliency and hardening of the system,’ to withstand the weather – though it’s not a one size fits all fix.
“We had the wildfires, the storm of 2020, the February ice storm, and then a heatwave of 116 degrees in Portland during the summer,” Bekkedahl recalled. “I’ll use undergrounding as a good example: It might work really well for ice or fires, but for flooding, it’s another issue. So the right tool, and the right application is what we’re trying to think about as we work to harden our system.”
In review, both utility companies and Portland metro power customers told KOIN 6 News, last year’s storm showed how difficult it can be to prepare for an unprecedented event.
Hibdon and his family were able to purchase a generator and eventually stay with friends during their 12 day stretch without electricity, but he told KOIN 6 News, “I don’t think you can prepare for the unexpected. I know that the power crews are trying their best to do that, but I don’t know what more they could have done, and if we have another storm of this magnitude, who knows?”
He continued, “The response was massive, but the damage was even bigger. I’ve never even heard of anybody being without power for 12 days, at least not in a metropolitan area like this.”
Bekkedahl told KOIN 6 News after one of the largest prolonged outages in history, PGE is focused on developing a more climate resilient future.
“We know that the weather patterns are changing. We have to think ahead of it. We need to be designing a system that is different today than what we’ve had in the past,” Bekkedahl said. “So we’re looking to work with our customers to build that resiliency, and have them be a part of this as we go forward.”