Into the Cold: An inside look how OTEC linemen restored power during massive outage

BAKER & UNION COUNTIES — It was early Sunday morning when the call came in. One that all linemen in the utility industry know well.

“Power’s out.”

Except on this morning, that call was different. An Idaho Power transformer that feeds into an Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative (OTEC) substation had blown, knocking out a critical transmission line that feeds into Baker City and causing an outage that affected nearly 11,000 OTEC customers in Baker and Union counties.

“We had most of Union and Baker County out. Idaho Power said they lost their line and didn’t have an ETA. Usually Idaho Power will say we got it handled, you guys should be back on in 10 minutes. Then we just stand down. But this one they’re like, we have no ETA,” said Jeff Pillow, Operations Superintendent at OTEC. “So we said, well let’s get to work then and see what we have.”

It was all hands on deck for OTEC. With morning temperatures hovering around 10 degrees, nine linemen geared up and headed into the cold to restore power for ⅓ of the utility’s customers.

“Since the transmission line was out, we had to reroute power from a different transmission line that runs from La Grande to Baker. To do that, you have to spread everybody out and get everybody at different substations to switch breakers one at a time,” said Pillow.  “If you do it all at once, then the amount of energy is too great and everything goes down. If it comes on too fast, then the whole system gets kicked off and you lose ALL of rural Union County and Baker again. So you have to monitor what’s going on and bring it back up a little bit at a time.”

Another issue OTEC crews had to deal with was the amount of amps the system had to deal with once power began coming back on.

“When the power went out, it was freezing, so everybody had their heaters on and such. So that means our amps were through the roof,” said Pillow.  “That’s why a lot of people saw their lights blinking a few times once power was restored, because of the amount of amps our system had to deal with.”

Power was restored to Baker City around 9:30am and restored to the rest of the affected customers by 10:45am. Elkhorn Media Group has reached out to Idaho Power on the cause of the outage on its transmission line.

“It was cold and stressful but that’s what we do,” said Pillow.