Washington electrical customers may face grid shutdown during wildfire season

Electrical customers may have power turned off as part of a program to reduce wildfires caused by their equipment.

By TJ Martinell | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – Electrical customers in Washington state may have their power turned off this summer as part of a program employed by several utilities intended to reduce wildfires caused by their equipment.

Known as Public Safety Power Shutoff, it’s considered a “measure of last resort” if the utility believes maintaining power could cause a wildfire to occur. While the program applies to all of Puget Sound Energy’s coverage area, the state’s largest utility has identified places where customers are at higher risk of wildfires, most notably along the Interstate 90 corridor between Roslyn and Ellensburg, as well as State Route 97.

Among the conditions that could result in a PSPS: strong winds, very dry vegetation and low humidity.

If it’s determined that a PSPS is necessary, PSE says it aims to notify customers two days in advance. Depending on the weather severity, the power could be turned off for several days. According to PSE, solar panels won’t work if they’re connected to the grid, while some natural gas appliances will still work if they do not rely on electricity to operate. EV charging ports connected to the grid would also not be operable.

Pacific Power, which serves parts of central and southeast Washington, also has a PSPS program, while Avista just recently unveiled its own plan. Avista serves parts of eastern Washington.

In 2023, the state Legislature enacted House Bill 1032, which requires investor-owned and publicly-owned electrical companies to submit wildfire mitigation plans starting this year. The plans must be updated every three years onward.

For utilities, the use of PSPS could help avoid lawsuits filed by customers affected by wildfires, but make it easier to obtain liability insurance. In 2020, residents of Malden sued Avista after a wildfire burned 80 percent of the city; the wildfire started when a tree fell onto Avista property and struck one of its power lines. Last year, a report by the State Insurance Commissioner’s Office found that some public utility districts had trouble getting their typical insurance coverage due to wildfire risks.

In California, Pacific Gas and Electric Company was held liable for the 2018 Camp Fire that caused 85 fatalities and cost $16.65 billion.