What happens when a storm damages utility transmission towers? Some consumers in the Teton Village area near Jackson, Wyoming, are facing multi-day power outages as local utility Lower Valley Energy scrambles to restore power safely.
Lower Valley Energy is a cooperative serving about 29,000 electricity customers in wesstern Wyoming and southeast Idaho, including the Jackson area. Its 2015 financial statements describe about $126 million in net utility plant, and operating revenues of about $52 million.
The Teton County outage started on the evening of February 7, 2017. The utility announced that at least 10 transmission poles had buckled, causing a "major outage in Teton County." At the time, it noted that while it did not yet know why the lines fell, wind gusts had been documented over 90 miles per hour. The utility estimated up to 4,000 customers were without power the next morning, including the Teton Village area, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski area, and the airport.
Ultimately, the utility discovered that 17 steel transmission poles had buckled, among other failures. Lower Valley Energy announced a plan to replace them temporarily with wooden poles to restore power, and to "re-route power, hopefully at least on an intermittent basis, to the airport area." But the damage to the transmission system serving Teton Village led the utility on February 8 to describe an expectation that Teton Village would be without power for 5-7 days. This would lead the ski area to announce that it will "not be operating until further notice."
Later on February 8, the utility announced that the Jackson Hole airport was fully operational with its own backup generation, but restoring power to Teton Village could take days. On the next morning, it announced that it had not been "successful in energizing the Teton Village Fire Department and
facilities yesterday due to other outages in the valley," but that it hoped to
accomplish that day.
Utility reliability comes at a cost, but also provides a
value. Businesses, local people, and visiting vacationers expect
reliable access to electricity, but storms and their effects on
infrastructure can be unpredictable. An outage places issues of utility reliability in sharp focus. After power is restored, questions for follow-up might include how the transmission towers failed, how the utility responded to the incident, and what should be done in the future to prevent similar incidents. Businesses, institutions (like the fire station) and people affected by the Teton County outage might consider how they could reduce their exposure to the risk of a prolonged utility outage -- for example, solar panels or other distributed generation, or battery backup -- and whether the cost is worth the benefit.