Wheeler County residents pushed the Bonneville Power Administration to unplug its plan to temporarily cut their power this summer.
More than 1,300 people live in the Eastern Oregon county, most in the towns of Fossil, Mitchell and Spray. The federal power marketing agency provides electricity to two local co-operatives: Columbia Basin Electric, which sells power to Fossil area customers, and Columbia Power, which has customers in Spray and Mitchell. The BPA planned to shut off the juice to the county on Fridays from 7 p.m. to Saturdays at 9 a.m. starting July 27 so it could make upgrades to is electrical substation near Fossil.
Roberta Vandehey of Fossil led the effort to get BPA to back off that plan. She said most residents there found out about the outages when their power bills arrived July 20.
“On Monday, everybody had to start really, really putting on pressure to get that one on Friday stopped,” she said.
Vandehey said she sent letters to six newspapers, including the East Oregonian, about the BPA’s plan. She said she spent an hour-and-a-half on the phone with BPA spokesperson John Tyler and sent him the letter. She asked business owners in Wheeler County to call the BPA to explain how damaging the blackouts would be and urged them to bill the agency for any loss of income.
Joe McNeill owns and operates the Fossil Mercantile Company, the lone grocery store in Fossil. He said he made one of those calls.
“I’ve got four freezers and I don’t have a generator,” he said. “And 14-hour blackouts — that’s going to be hard. And the next call I made was to my insurance to see what kind of coverage I had.”
McNeill said his plan was to pack everything in as much dry ice as a possible to preserve the goods.
The BPA last Thursday announced it would cancel Friday’s planned outage, along with outages scheduled for Aug. 17-18 and 24-25. Tyler, the BPA spokesperson, said the agency listed to the public and took the concerns seriously. He recalled Vandehey’s phone call and her emphasis on how the outages would affect the local population at the height of summer heat and the local economy at the peak of tourist season. Fire season also was a major concern, Tyler said, and the BPA did not want to hinder fire and emergency services.
“We thought it prudent to cancel three of the four outages,” he said. “But we have one on the books that is scheduled for after Labor Day.”
That would be for Sept. 7-8, but Tyler said BPA may change that date and plans to shorten the duration.
But eventually, the outages will have to happen.
The voltage traveling into Wheeler County fluctuates, he said, and the BPA needs to install a piece of hardware that would make the flow more consistent and improve the quality of service. But the remoteness of communities in the area means its electrical infrastructure has no redundancies — no other substation to re-route power through. That means there is no way to conduct the work without cutting the power. Thus people downstream are going to experience an outage.
Tyler also said some parts of the substation are 60 years old, so the BPA wants to upgrade those at the same time at the installation project.
Now the agency is looking at when it can get the work done. This project has been on the books for two years, he said, and the BPA has more than 200 projects in the queue. Putting off one means shifting pieces, but there are only so many days of good weather available for the work, he said. And no one wants the power offline in winter, either.
“We’ll get that work done, we just don’t know exactly when,” Tyler said.