Officials from Lewis County and Centralia City Light are continuing to examine the fallout from a widespread power outage during which most Lewis County residents along the Interstate 5 corridor went without electricity for anywhere between three to five hours Friday afternoon.
The outage originated at 12:16 p.m. at the Bonneville Power Administration substation in Chehalis. The main 69 kilovolt line that feeds BPA electricity to distributors such as Centralia City Light and the Lewis County Public Utility District failed for reasons that are still under investigation, according to the BPA. Power was rerouted from another substation by about 2:30 p.m. to supply PUD customers between Vader and Napavine,
Power was restored to the 18,275 affected LCPUD customers by 3:50 p.m. Friday, while Centralia City Light’s feeder line went back into operation at 4:20 p.m. The May Street substation operated by City Light, which supplies power to downtown Centralia, was the last to go back online at approximately 4:45 p.m..
M.L. Norton, general manager of Centralia City Light, said he plans to meet with his counterparts from the BPA later this month to go over what happened and find out if any useful information can be gleaned from the incident.
“We both have computer-driven devices on our breakers that are called relays and are the brains of the operation,” Norton said. “They have outputs that can be analyzed and looked at, and I’m sure Lewis County PUD will do the same if they have those same capabilities. … the issue is in the not in the lines as much as it is in the relays. It may have started on a line somewhere — we’ll try to establish that at some point — but the event they saw in their substation was pretty separated from any of the lines.”
Lewis County officials raised a number of concerns Monday morning, including the potential for a longer outage, or one that takes place during hotter weather, to cause significant damage to county systems.
Wayne Whiton, Lewis County’s risk and safety administrator, said the outage highlighted the need for a backup generator. The county’s IT department suffered expensive damage during an outage several years ago, as computer equipment overheated due to the loss of cooling systems. This time, the county closely monitored temperatures, and staffers were on the verge of taking action.
“We were at a critical point if the fans didn’t drop the temperature, we were going to have a forklift from across the street bring a generator over,” Whiton said. “It really just shines some attention that we need a backup generator over there.”
Norton said Monday that in Centralia, most of the critical power loads served by City Light have backup generators installed as part of their own infrastructure. Those include City Hall, Providence Centralia Hospital and the new United Natural Foods warehouse at the Port of Centralia.
County budget manager Becky Butler said the Capital Facilities Plan that will be presented to commissioners soon includes a recommendation to purchase a new generator, at a cost of about $50,000.
“What would be lost if we didn’t have that (generator) is going to cost a lot more,” Butler said.
Meanwhile, Whiton noted that the county assessor’s office opened its windows during the outage as the building got uncomfortably hot, only to be overwhelmed by exhaust fumes from traffic backed up outside. Employees were sent home for the day to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
County commissioner Edna Fund said the outage highlighted the need to get more residents signed up for the Lewis County Alert system. Many of the residents who were notified through the system of the outage said it was a helpful way to stay abreast of the situation.
Whether a final determination on the cause of the outage will be made remains to be seen. Corenne Moses, communications liaison for LCPUD, said that sometimes investigations can take months just trying to figure out what happened.
“There’s nothing like a flashing light that says, ‘here’s our outage and here’s what caused it,’” Moses said. “We have more than 3,000 miles of power lines, and you can just imagine how many miles BPA has.”
Moses did have information about a second outage that affected around 600 PUD customers on Sunday. A car drove into a power pole on Jackson Highway at about 6 p.m., which knocked out power for some people from just south of the Port of Chehalis to Napavine. The pole was replaced and power restored by 8:15 p.m.
Chronicle reporter Alex Brown contributed to this story.