Cause of recent outages unknown, electrical system in need of update

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Recent power outages in the eastern side of Blaine, surrounding Lincoln Park and the truck route, have left residents with questions and concerns about the city’s electrical system. While the city doesn’t know the cause of some recent outages, it expects there could be more.  

After the power went out on September 23 and 26 for several hours, Kerry Clausen, who lives on 8th Street, wrote a letter to the city asking for an explanation. Clausen said on September 23 the power went out around 6:37 p.m. and lasted until 4:23 a.m. the next day. The next outage, on the 26th, Clausen said lasted about two hours and only affected the east side of 8th Street. 

“I’m worried with all these breaks in service, and the impending bad winter coming, people using more electricity because they are staying home with Covid, and daylight saving time ending, there will be additional taxing on the system,” Clausen wrote.

Interim public works director Bob Hammond said he’s not certain what caused these outages. He thinks the outages were likely due to what is sometimes called “an underground storm,” which happens when it rains or storms for the first time after a dry season. The vulnerable areas within the system – old or faulty cables – will fail, he said. 

“I want to send a clear message that there could be more of these,” Hammond said in a September 28 city council meeting. “I’m hopeful that there isn’t. We’ll try to figure out anything we can about the vulnerabilities.” 

Hammond said he is planning to recommend the city to budget for updates on the current electrical system. He said the city will likely begin work on a $1 million project to update the circuit in spring 2021. 

Hammond said some components of the electrical system have been there since its inception, which was in 1890, according to the city of Blaine website. 

While not a sure cause of the outages, Hammond said a main switch to one of the system’s two substations was destroyed in a vehicular collision a couple of months ago and that could have made the system more vulnerable. The $30,000 switch has since been replaced. 

High winds damaging above-ground cables caused an outage on October 13 that affected an area south of Salishan Park, Hammond said. That outage was not related to the September
outages.

“The great news, in our system, is that we have a lot of underground cable and that helps us in a windstorm because of the overhead,” Hammond said in the September 28 meeting. “The bad news is it’s really difficult to find where these faults are.” 

Hammond said this is the reason for the 12-hour outage on September 23. As part of the update project in the spring, Hammond said he hopes to install more fault indicators to the system – devices that help crews identify and diagnose the vulnerable areas within the current system that need updating. 

Crews will also install a mile of 600-amp primary circuit around the same substation that recently had the switch replaced. This will allow for the system to flow more smoothly and be less susceptible to faults, Hammond said. 

In 2015, a study of the city’s electrical system found three vulnerable areas that, Hammond said, if fixed at the time, could’ve helped to prevent the recent
outages.

“If we would’ve acted on those comments back in time appropriately, in my opinion, I can’t say for sure these outages would be avoided, but certainly the probability would be better,” he said in the meeting. 

Hammond said the project set for spring would address those vulnerable areas.

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