Wind, Rain, and Fire: The Year in American Power Outages

by | Dec 21, 2018


(Image: Hurricane Michael near Cuba on October 8, 2018. Credit: Stuart Rankin, Flickr Creative Commons)

The year began with a two-hour blackout at the Las Vegas Convention Center during CES 2018, the world’s largest annual technology and innovation showcase. Record-breaking rainfall had caused a flashover on one of the facility’s transformers. Some exhibitors kept going with fully charged laptops, flashlights, and their own power supplies. It was, in some ways, a sign of what was to come.

Wilder weather and historic natural disasters made their mark on the United States in 2018. Preparedness and recovery became crucial for communities, municipalities, and businesses from Hawaii to Puerto Rico. Here’s a look at a few of the most notable power outages.

Accidents in Puerto Rico

Still reeling from Hurricane Maria, the entire island of Puerto Rico lost power in April when an excavator accidentally downed a transmission line. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) said at the time that more than 1.4 million of their customers were affected. Commercial customers make up around 47% of PREPA’s rate base. Then, over the summer, PREPA’s leadership was in flux when the CEO and seven board members resigned suddenly.

More recently the US commonwealth mulled a shift to renewable power and Puerto Rico’s governor announced an ambitious resiliency initiative that calls for 100% renewables by 2050.

Kilauea Erupts in Hawaii

Lava flowing from the Kilauea volcano erupting on Hawaii prompted an emergency shutdown of the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) plant in May. The 38-MW-capacity geothermal energy conversion plant had sold electricity to Hawaii Electric Light for distribution to 85,925 customers. It has been closed since May, contributing to Hawaii Electric Light’s drop in renewable energy resources from 57% to 37%, Honolulu Civil Beat reported.

Hurricanes Hit the Southeast

Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina on September 14 and dumped historic rains on the region. Duke Energy reported that the storm had caused power outages for 1.4 million customers in the Carolinas. About a week after Florence landed, floodwaters breached a dam at Duke Energy’s L.V. Sutton plant near Wilmington, North Carolina. The utility shut down its natural gas power units there and reported that coal combustion byproducts had washed into the nearby Cape Fear River. Coal ash controversy followed.

The following month, Hurricane Michael slammed the Florida Panhandle and left 2.5 million electricity customers across the southeast without power. It was dubbed a “history-making monster” by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Insurance losses from the storm were estimated to be close to $8 billion.

Wildfires Rip Through California

For the second year in a row, intense wildfires tore through California. The Camp Fire in Northern California killed at least 86 people, making it the deadliest in the state’s history. It raged for 17 days before being fully contained, leaving a charred area the size of Chicago, the Washington Post reported. Crews also worked to repair power lines.

As Cal Fire continued investigating the cause of the fire, Pacific Gas and Electric Company sent a letter to regulators saying that one of their employees spotted flames near a transmission tower close to the fire’s origin site, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on December 12.

Earlier, in mid-November, PG&E Co. reported that they faced a potential liability of billions of dollars from California wildfires, raising concerns over bankruptcy or reorganization. Cal Fire previously determined that PG&E was responsible for several 2017 wildfires in Northern California.

“With one in 10 California wildfires related to energy equipment, the state’s utilities have been called before regulators to show how they plan to ensure that their equipment won’t spark future fires,” Julie Cart of CALmatters wrote in the Desert Sun. The fire mitigation strategies under consideration are expensive, she says, and customers are likely to end up footing the bill.

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