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  • Jordan D. Smith

Electric Dept. Seeks to Avoid Brownouts

Portland’s electric grid is so reliable thanks to undergrounded lines that losing that power is a true rarity. In fact it’s a point of pride for Portlanders whose rural neighbors often lose power due to downed lines due to the weather. One thing though ties us all together when it comes to electricity and that is when there just isn’t enough to go around.

As Michigan moves into the hottest parts of the summer, the Portland Board of Light and Power (BLP) want’s citizens to be aware of the possibility that on the hottest days of the summer there may simply not be enough electricity to meet the demand, leading to a brownout. A brown out is a partial power outage where the voltage drops below normal levels usually between 10-15%. This is usually a conscious decision made by regional power regulators to make sure that the power stays on rather than failing completely.

This problem, while improbable, is most likely to occur during what BLP Superintendent Todd Davlin calls peak load hours between 2 and 7 pm during the work week. In particular, Davlin says, Portland’s grid generally starts to hit peak when the temperature outdoors exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit. While most are likely only hearing of this now, Davlin says that the possibility of blackouts and brownouts is a perennial summertime possibility.

An important thing to keep in mind is that the City of Portland electric utility operates as part of a large network called the Midcontinent Independent System Operators (MISO) which makes collective decisions for the regional power grid. MISO plays an important role in that the organization would direct the BLP to turn on the department’s natural-gas powered generators at the Grand River Ave plan, which are in place for just such an occasion. According to Davlin, these generators are able to generate 40% of the peak load on hot summer days.

If the BLP does turn on the engine generators, the public will be informed through the city webpage and Facebook page and asked to take measures to reduce power use. To reduce power use consumers can turn on fans instead of the AC, barbecue instead of cooking indoors, and keep curtains or shades drawn to keep out the suns rays. They can also defer energy intense tasks like washing laundry to the evening or morning hours and washing clothes with cold water. Many electric saving efforts are things that can be done in advance like regularly replacing AC filters, repairing weatherstripping on windows and doors, trimming brush around AC units, and improving insulation around water heaters, and in attic spaces.

The City website and Facebook page would also be the way that news of an imminent brownout is communicated. According to an electric industry education website, in the case of a brown out, many devices would continue to operate normally. Lights may dim depending on the type of bulb, which is where the term “brown out” originated. A similar thing would happen with heater type appliances like toasters or hair dryers. For most electronic devices a brownout may cause them to power down or operate incorrectly. The most at risk are electric motors like those found in a refrigerator which may run harder and warmer cause it to wear out faster if brownout conditions persist long-term.

City Manager Tutt Gorman, is quick to point out that local civil servants are not responsible for the potential for brownouts. It’s a combination of, “political, economic, regulatory, and environmental pressures,” combining to create instability in the energy market, says Gorman. One issue is the electrical industry transitioning away from fossil fuel based power plants and replacing them with renewable sources. That transition as you might expect is not always smooth, and, the challenge for the industry,” says Gorman, is to fill that gap and facilitate policy that reduces environmental impact from power production, but at a pace that does not decrease reliability.”


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