Utility district responds to recent outages
Truckee Donner Public Utility District customers have been frustrated by recent power outages, which have occurred more frequently due to work done by NV Energy, wildfire mitigation, and storms.
Last week, roughly half of Truckee Donner Public Utility District’s 14,500 customers were without power following an early season storm that knocked several tree limbs onto power lines.
“That was a significant storm,” said Public Information & Strategic Affairs Director Steven Poncelet. “We had trees falling everywhere.”
Power went out the morning of Monday, Oct. 25. Crews restored energy to the area that night.
While last week’s storm was responsible for Truckee’s outages, there are a number of reasons Truckee Donner Public Utility District, which is dependent on the transmission of power from NV Energy, could lose power to its customers.
This year, NV Energy began implementing public safety outage management events during extreme and elevated fire conditions. A planned outage was in place earlier in the fire season, but was later called off as fire conditions eased. Though no public safety outage management events happened this season, Poncelet indicated that a shutoff by NV Energy would mean at least a day without power due to crews from Truckee Donner Public Utility District and NV Energy needing to visually inspect roughly 200 miles of its lines.
For nearly 20 years, the town has required lines to be placed underground, but significant overhead lines remain in areas like Tahoe Donner, Prosser Lakeview, Glenshire, and Donner Lake. Also, a shutoff due to a weather event near Reno could also end up in power being lost in Truckee.
Another reason for more short-term outages, according to Poncelet, has been a shift in the usage of automatic reclosers during fire season.
Automatic reclosers are a device that, if an intermittent fault in the system is caused by an animal or a branch hitting the line and falling to the ground, will cause power to almost immediately reenergize, leading to no customers experiencing an outage.
The reclosers, however, have been linked to the cause of wildfires due to attempts to reenergize with some form of fire fuel still on the line. Due to the risk of sparking a wildfire, Truckee Donner Public Utility District last year adopted the policy of disabling the reclosers during fire season.
“Our number one obligation is not to be the source of ignition of a fire,” said Poncelet.
The practice, however, means that objects that wouldn’t normally cause an outage could potentially cause power to go out for a few hours while crews inspect lines in the area.
“That is one of the major drivers in the outages we’ve had the last few months,” said Poncelet. “It’s not just us that disables our automatic reclosers, so does NV Energy.”
Additionally, outages have had more of an impact recently due to work NV Energy is doing to improve safety and reliability. For NV Energy to be able to safely complete the work, Poncelet said the district has had to take the Tahoe Donner and Donner Lake substations offline and switch customers to another substation.
In this case, half of Tahoe Donner was fed from the circuit that runs along Donner Pass Road on the western portion of Truckee, and half of Tahoe Donner was fed from the circuit that runs north of Truckee along Highway 89.
“The impact to Donner Pass Road and our commercial corridor were greater than they would have been, had we not been switched,” said Poncelet.
That work is set be completed in the next few weeks.
Poncelet added that because fire season is now deemed over, the public utility district took the operational decision to put automatic reclosers back in service on Oct. 22, which he said prevented even more outages from occurring from last week’s storm.
“As a winter device, automatic reclosers have really helped our reliability, because that’s when you’ve got snow and ice, and branches and trees,” said Poncelet. “If it’s an intermittent contact and we had a lot of that during the last storm, it’s going to prevent the outage.”
WHO GETS POWER
The Truckee Donner Public Utility District has just over 70 employees for all of its services, and as a $30 million a year operating utility, doesn’t have the resources available for real time communication or means to add a microgrid, which would keep the power on in certain high priority areas during an outage.
“We don’t have the ability to communicate real time,” said Poncelet. “We don’t have the technology, and then we don’t have the staff resources. With the tools that we have and the resources we have, we’re doing the best we can to be responsive, but there’s impacts on rates for new communication technologies.”
As far as who gets power returned first, Poncelet outlined a hierarchy of needs starting with emergency response, public health and safety, basic needs, economy, and then residential areas.
In order to build redundancy into the system, some customers have asked for a microgrid or other means of generating power to be installed, but according to Poncelet, providing energy to a place like the hospital would involve powering the entire circuit the hospital is on, which would be expensive on rate payers and would likely involve generating power by diesel fuel generators.
“That costs millions and has impacts that show up in rates and in the environment, added Poncelet. “There’s a lot of things you could do, but what is the best thing for our community?”
In the short-term, Poncelet said the district’s goal is to operate efficiently given safety and reliability concerns. In the long-term, he said plans are to engage with rate payers to understand their needs while communicating to customers the realities of operating a small public utilities district.
“We do the best we can with the resources and capacity that we have today,” Poncelet said.
For more information, visit http://www.tdpud.org.
Justin Scacco is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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