Tackling the island’s power vulnerability

By Kathryn Wheeler, Journal contributor

The vulnerability of the islands’ power, and its near total reliance on mainland systems, has been a cause for concern to many for years. Beyond the annoyance of a power outage, there can be larger, more dangerous consequences such as a loss of power to the local medical center or fire departments.

Most recently that vulnerability was shown in two outages in the days leading up to Christmas. Many islanders found themselves in the dark after an uncommonly large winter storm pummeled the Northwest part of the State. On Dec. 22, freezing temperatures combined with heavy snow caused a mainland electrical feeder serving San Juan County to break, leaving the island without power for roughly 10 hours. Just two days later, as residents awoke on Christmas Eve morning, they found themselves without power once more thanks to a blown mainland jumper. This critical connective part of a powerline could be seen in a video posted to OPALCO’s Facebook page, engulfed in a ball of sparks. OPALCO was posting regular updates on social media to keep islanders aware of the latest developments.

Both power outages took roughly 10 hours to be fully repaired with nearly half of that time spent waiting for Puget Sound Energy (PSE) and the Bonneville Power Administration, in charge of the majority of western Washington’s power, to reach the downed wires and begin repairs. An additional outage hit San Juan Island only on the night of 23, but was due to a localized issue and therefore dealt with directly, and more swiftly, by OPALCO.

During the outages, county residents took to Facebook, commenting on OPALCO’s post of the fiery mainland jumper that caused the Christmas Eve outage. “This little line feeds power to the islands?” commented one resident, with another adding “incredible that we have such vulnerable single points of failure for our entire county and beyond!”

Getting electricity to the island, like many other resources, brings challenges. The island is powered by submarine cables, deep under the Salish Sea, with our mostly hydro-electric power generated by the mainland’s Bonneville Power Administration. This transported power is managed by the islands’ own energy company, OPALCO. The cooperative began in 1937 after a group of 12 Orcas men went door to door to convince neighbors to put away their unreliable generators and Delco battery plants and welcome electricity to the islands. Soon, a loan was procured through president FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration and OPALCO was born.

When power goes out due to an island-based mechanical issue, OPALCO is easily able to address it, arriving on the scene quickly given the relatively small size of the areas they cover. However, when an issue occurs on the mainland, from which only a number of cables are responsible for the entire County’s electricity, OPALCO has no power to fix the issue themselves. This means a long wait, and little OPALCO can do, as BPA or PSE work to address issues in the vast swath of areas they maintain.

In a recent email correspondence about the December outages, Krista Bouchey, Assistant Manager of Communications for OPALCO, wrote, “We will always be dependent on the mainland as our primary power source.” “Power outages are a reality,” she continued, with no signs of shoring up soon. Brendan Cowan, San Juan County’s longtime Emergency Management Director, echoed the message, writing that “Having alternate heating sources, supplies of food and water, and taking care of each other are kind of core parts of island living.”

This is especially important for islanders to remember, as more destructive events will occur in the future, according to Cowan. “It has been many years since the Pacific NW has experienced a truly catastrophic windstorm, but it will happen again, and when it does, there will be outages far more significant than anything we’ve seen in the last 20 years.”

Part of the impetus for OPALCO to transition to buried cables was due to a number of intense storms in the 1980’s and early 1990’s according to Cowan. In a 1989 description of one January storm, an OPALCO foreman from Lopez wrote, “Stuff was falling faster than we could get it out. You’d get one tree out and two more were falling behind you. The wind was so intense that we were having trees 100 feet from the line coming down and falling on top of it.” The storm’s wrath was more intense than had been seen in 50 years, according to another foreman, and left the islands without power for over a week.

These storms will happen, and power will go out, leaving many asking what can actually be done to mitigate risk beyond having a stalked pantry and abundant candles and blankets.

OPALCO, recognizing this, believes there are things that can be done, and is making an effort to bring more island-based power sources that can be especially helpful in providing localized power in the event of being cut off from the mainland.

In February 2021, OPALCO brought their new solar array and battery energy storage system online, based on Decatur Island. This coming year, they expect to finish their Community Solar and Battery Storage project, another microgrid, on a 19-acre plot on San Juan Island. Both projects offer the islands more localized energy sources and a sense of security that some amount of power will be available in case of a devastating outage. OPALCO has big goals for more sustainable and reliable island energy, such as harnessing power from tides and establishing more solar panels, but efforts require millions of dollars in grants. While they’ve been highly successful at securing grants, OPALCO’s Bouchey acknowledges that as a small cooperative, expected to match any funds provided by state and government grants, they are limited by the sheer expense of such projects.

For the foreseeable future, the islands will reliably experience periods of darkness, especially as storms become more severe due to climate change. Neighbors supporting neighbors may prove essential during these times.

In the report of the devastating 1989 storm, Ingrid Karnikis, who fielded the many phone calls to OPALCO, wrote:

“There were so many wonderful folks, so many helpful people. The Community Church opened its doors to provide food and warmth to those families made homeless by the storm…OPALCO suddenly was turned into the local water well…People came through the doors carrying buckets for water. Of course, there were always the stories of Island experiences which show the resilience and adaptability of the human body and spirit.”

This legacy, and a spirit of community, may in fact be our most reliable source of power when disaster strikes.