No one likes it when their power goes out.

Hermiston Energy Services and Umatilla Electric Cooperative are working to keep their customers from experiencing that frustrating phenomenon any more often than necessary. But they are also trying to move through improvements at a pace that allows them to keep rates well below the national and state average.

“There’s reliability and there’s affordability, and we try to strike a balance there,” HES general manager Nate Rivera said.

The municipal utility recently completed a pilot project for moving transformers off poles in order to reduce outages. They chose to test the project on 24 homes in the East Pine Avenue neighborhood, which had multiple transformers on poles in back yards, with primary lines running through “mature” trees.

“When we have windstorms, we would have branches land on lines,” Rivera said.

Now those primary lines are underground, and the transformers are in boxes in front yards instead of on poles behind private fences. Homes are still served individually with low-voltage lines above ground, but the lines that can knock out power to large swaths of the city, instead of a single house, are buried safely below.

Rivera said not only does the move make the area less vulnerable to outages, but when one does happen, particularly during the middle of the night, it will be easier for crews to access what they need from the street.

“We’re not having to carry poles through gates and pull wire over fences,” he said.

They are taking advantage of new boring methods that allow them to thread wire through underground PVC pipe from one spot, instead of digging a trench all along where the new wires are going. Encasing the wire in pipe instead of laying it directly in the bare dirt, as utilities used to do, helps crews avoid having to dig up yards to service the lines.

Rivera said the test area’s size kept costs down while still providing a large enough sample size for HES to learn and improve.

HES has scheduled capital projects into 2021, but Rivera said after that they would likely start scheduling some additional neighborhoods to convert. He said it would be great to move large numbers of neighborhoods at once to the more reliable underground setup, but that would take additional revenue and HES is “sensitive” to the concerns right now in Hermiston about the cost of utilities.

In the meantime, HES and Umatilla Electric Cooperative try to protect above-ground power lines and transformers in part with tree-trimming. Rivera said HES has a cycle of trimming trees near power lines every three years.

He said they educate homeowners about planting trees away from poles and lines, and talk to local nurseries and stores like Home Depot about teaching people to understand the growth pattern their new tree will follow.

For homeowners who are willing to remove trees that electric crews must trim every three years, HES provides vouchers to plant a new tree on a safer part of the property.

Umatilla Electric Cooperative

UEC is contracted to handle tree-trimming and other maintenance for HES, in addition to serving its own customers. UEC spokesperson Steve Meyers said in the past two years UEC has trimmed or removed more than 22,000 trees near power lines. He said the company inspects all power lines in its 1,930-square-mile service territory during their three-year rotation.

“Because the cause of many outages is beyond our control — a severe storm or a vehicle that skids into a power pole — we can’t say we can eliminate all outages all the time,” Meyers said in an email. “But we are working toward shortening their duration.”

Until recently, there were only three feeder lines serving the city, which meant an errant branch could knock out power to a third of the city. Since the new Hermiston East substation opened in December 2017 there are now six feeder lines, shrinking some outages in half. The substation itself has also helped by providing extra capacity where UEC can transfer customers during an outage, restoring their electricity sooner.

Now UEC is working to build a McNary to Hermiston Butte transmission line, which will also create redundancies by adding a second source of power to Hermiston so that the entire town doesn’t lose power when something happens to the city’s current transmission line.

The new line under construction starts near the intersection of Highway 395 and Highway 730, running south along Lind and Geer roads. UEC began putting up the large steel poles in July, and has estimated the project will take about six months.

Like many of UEC’s capital projects, including the new feeder lines and substation, the transmission line is a UEC project but serves both UEC and HES customers.

New “smart” meters installed in recent years has allowed the utility to know automatically when an outage occurs instead of relying on customers to call it in. UEC is installing a new Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system, and Meyers said getting data faster and more accurately “is essential in quickly diagnosing the cause of an outage and putting our response into action.”

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