I live next to a forest, and on the evening of Friday, February 12, I thought Paul Bunyan was outside my window. As a historic snow and ice storm hammered the upper Willamette Valley, countless trees groaned and snapped under the immense pressure—including two in my backyard.
I was one of the lucky Oregonians who maintained electricity, unlike hundreds of thousands of people who celebrated Valentine’s Day huddled together in the cold with blankets and candles, wondering when power would be restored.
Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association (ORECA) members Consumers Power, Salem Electric, and West Oregon Electric felt the full impact of the storm, with broken poles, damaged equipment, and limbs hanging from overhead lines. With so many trees blocking roads, often it was even hard to access areas to restore power.
As always, Oregon electric co-ops rallied to those who needed help, with crews traveling almost on a moment’s notice, often from great distances over treacherous mountain passes. They made great progress, but as I write this, not everyone’s power is restored. With this level of devastation, it can often take days of nonstop work to get to the last customer.
A few lessons have already emerged from this event. The Oregon Legislature is debating legislation to mandate electric utilities in Oregon are 100% renewable within a few years. Of course, we all want clean energy. Few utilities have as close to an emissions-free profile as Oregon co-ops, powered by our amazing hydro system. But as we push toward 100% clean, we should ensure we maintain the reliability of the electric grid by embracing our cleanest, most reliable baseload generation. Hydropower in the Northwest is something we don’t fully appreciate until we’re shivering in the dark.
Another lesson concerns the utility linemen that ORECA has been pushing—to no avail—for priority status for the scarce COVID-19 vaccine. The best way to thank these workers who worked nonstop in miserable conditions to restore electricity to our homes is to keep them safe for whatever comes next.
In the past few months, we have experienced devastating fire and weather events, and this group of essential workers has always answered the call. We do not know what will be the next thing to happen outside our window, but I think we have seen enough to move this group of heroes to the front of a very long line.