Cold snap could bring power shortage


Herald Writer

Reports that a cold snap could mean record low temperatures next week revved up power industry efforts Wednesday to brace for electricity shortages in coming months.

Word first circulated over a weather Web site earlier this week that the Northwest could face single-digit low temperatures and highs in the teens as early as this weekend, according to John White, assistant general manager with Snohomish County PUD.

National Weather Service spokesman Mike McFarland said Wednesday afternoon that the lows aren’t now expected to set any records. But temperatures are expected to fall to the 15- to 25-degree range, with highs in the upper 20s and 30s.

Lows in the Puget Sound area in December average about 25 degrees.

"If we get the moisture," the area could get snow Sunday and again Tuesday or Wednesday, McFarland said. But he added that the pattern appears "pretty dry and cold through midweek."

Earlier this fall, the Northwest Power Planning Council, a 45-member group that includes legislative and utility officials from seven states, began developing an emergency plan to make sure shortages don’t turn into blackouts. The plan outlines a process for warnings about severe cold fronts or problems with generating plants or transmission outages.

The weather reports sent the power council into an extended conference call Wednesday.

"We’re thinking we’ll be OK," Rich Nassief, director of the Northwest Power Pool, said after that call. But just to be sure, the group will talk again Friday morning and look at how much power will be needed if cold weather hits.

"Right now we’re running all our resources full out and a few are off-line," Nassief said.

The estimate of adequate supply assumes that the entire system will be in full service with all lines operating, he added, noting that to increase that probability some maintenance has been canceled.

The power council has proposed a three-stage alert that will identify the intensity of a potential emergency, according to a press release issued Tuesday.

If alerts similar to those issued over the past two weeks in California are issued, residential customers and businesses could be asked to voluntarily reduce energy use to varying degrees.

The plan also sets up an emergency team and a communications system for getting the word out. In addition, it takes into account relaxing air-quality standards and measures normally in place to protect fish in order to avert an emergency. Those would be taken only after other actions have been exhausted, the release stated.

Locally, PUD managers will also meet Friday to talk about contingency plans, White said. "We’re going to focus on what we can do to reduce our own loads and set a good example."

The urgency of the situation decreased as the day went on and the forecasts of record cold eased, he added. "For us, there’s a huge difference between the teens and single digits."

But he also said: "This is a good time for all of us to be aware and reduce our energy needs. It’s good for the bills, and in this case it’s good for our neighbors and the region."

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