SALT LAKE CITY — Rocky Mountain Power initiated protocols a couple of years ago on what conditions would prompt it to cut off power to neighborhoods because of the risk of power lines sparking wildfires.
This week, those protocols are actively being assessed in the most advanced stage since the program began and are being scrutinized for two neighborhoods: Sundance and Summit Park in Summit County.
“They are experiencing really dry conditions, high winds and hot temperatures,” said Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Spencer Hall.
If conditions escalate, Hall said it may be that potentially 1,800 customers could be without power for a couple of days.
“The most important thing for people to know is that it is not a multi-day event but a multi-day watch,” he said. “If they live in those communities and if their power goes out for a couple of days, we would appreciate their patience.”
Hall stressed it is vital that customers check their contact information with the utility company to make sure it is up to date.
In the event of a rolling outage, Hall said the utility will notify affected customers as much in advance as possible.
“Ideally we would start 72 hours before with notifications, but if the weather changes quickly, we would have to move quickly.”
The concern is a transformer could blow or lines could be blown into trees, potentially sparking what could be a catastrophic fire in the face of Utah’s dry summer and drier fall.
Hall said customers will receive follow-up notifications in advance should a shut-off event be initiated. For all nonemergency questions about the Public Safety Power Shutoff watch, customers and the public should call Rocky Mountain Power at 1-888-221-7070. More information is also available at the utility company’s website.
While not a wildfire, such interplay between nature and electricity was blamed for a June 2010 rupture of a Chevron pipeline that dumped thousands of gallons of oil into Red Butte Creek, onto Liberty Pond and into the Jordan River.
Officials say a lightning storm toppled a tree into an overhead power line above Red Butte Garden. A resulting electrical arc traveled down a metal fence post and ruptured the pipe buried 3 feet underground.
Chevron Pipe Line Co. was sued — the leak went undetected for hours — and in turn, Chevron sued Rocky Mountain Power for $30 million.
A confidential settlement was reached in 2017.
The voluntary power outages are intended foremost to prevent deadly wildfires in vulnerable areas, but also to stave off instances of liability for utility companies.
Earlier this month, Pacific Gas & Electric cut the power cord to 50,000 customers in nearly two dozen counties in California to avoid sparking wildfires.
Last year, it shut off power to 2 million people in a move that was criticized.
But faulty equipment owned by PG&E has been linked to some of California’s most devastating wildfires, including the 2018 conflagration that roared through the town of Paradise, killing 84 people.
The company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and paid $25.5 billion in settlements related to Paradise and other fires.
The persistent and extensive “rolling blackouts” in California due to wildfire fears are stoking interest, particularly in the dry and arid West, in energy storage systems that give people an alternative to being dependent on the grid.
Utah-based Humless, which offers off-grid battery systems, solar kits and home battery backup power systems, has been flooded with phone calls from California and elsewhere around the country as people seek to increase their energy independence, said Eric Lobdell, vice president of sales and product development.
“I am constantly getting calls every day and emails, especially from people in California,” he said.
Lobdell said the country has had the luxury for decades of being able to be secure with a reliable energy grid, but that has started to change as some utility companies struggle to maintain infrastructure, especially when it comes to growing populations.
Climate change is blamed for fueling drier conditions and enhanced risk of wildfires, he said, and is also shaping what he says is a growing awareness among customers about grid vulnerability.
“We have been so lucky in America to have the infrastructure we’ve had.”
While America has been lucky over the years to have a reliable grid, that has not been the case in other countries.
Lobdell said the Humless technology was developed by a South African scientist who designed it for a grid that was not reliable.
As California’s rolling blackouts become more usual than not, residents are increasingly turning to those alternatives that give them greater energy independence, he said, and technological advancements are working in their favor.
“There are really, really cool systems that are available now to give people security that we could not have 10 or 15 years ago,” Lobdell said.
While Rocky Mountain Power is eying a potential power shutdown in the event of changing weather conditions that could put communities at risk, Hall said that so far, the utility company has not had to initiate a blackout in Utah.