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Tree takes out 40,000 electric customers

Tree removed from power line
Courtesy GVEA
Golden Valley Electric Association line crew removes a tree from a 69-kilovolt power line on the west side of Fairbanks after a widespread, but short, power outage on July 21, 2022.

The afternoon outage affected 40,000 customers from the Kenai to Anchorage, the Matsu and the Interior.

The problem originated in Fairbanks at about 2:30 in the afternoon, when a worker using an excavator to clear trees near the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge accidently knocked a tree into a 69-kilovolt electric transmission line.

“Which is a larger line that transmits, you know, a large amount of electricity, it caused a fault -- so, a disruption in the flow. And that fault then caused the system to automatically disconnect or to trip. And that happened to all of our generation sources,” said Golden Valley Electric Association spokesperson Meadow Bailey. At the time, GVEA was drawing power from about seven different sources, including the power plant at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the Bradley Lake Hydroelectric project on the Kenai Peninsula. The fault automatically turned off power for all those sources, affecting customers in Southcentral as well as the Interior.

“Because we were also receiving power up the Alaska Intertie, the trip extended throughout the railbelt electric system. And it caused outages for members in Homer, in Anchorage, for members for Chugach Electric and then Matanuska Electric Association. So in all we had disruptions to about 40,000 meters across the railbelt, and that would be from Homer, um, you know, all the way into the Interior to Delta Junction, where our lines end,” Bailey said.

Excavator removing trees
Photo courtesy of GVEA
An excavator removing trees off Hoselton Road knocked one into a powerline, causing a power outage.

Bailey says the automatic shut-off is a safety feature.

“It's a built-in protection within the system to protect from overload. We were receiving electricity from those multiple different generation sources, so those all came offline,” she said.

Bailey says 15,000 Golden Valley customers were affected, who could track the outages on the utility’s map: https://outage.gvea.com/

Nearly every outage was restored within an hour. The sources from which GVEA was buying power all came back on quickly once they were disconnected from lines in the Interior.

“There was power restored within 60 minutes. So, it was a relatively widespread, very sudden outage. It garnered a lot of attention, but it was relatively short,” Bailey said

She says incidents like this where people using heavy equipment cause outages sometimes happen. But for it to trip a shutoff of so many sources is extremely rare. GVEA line crews came to the site on the west side of Fairbanks with first responders. There were no injuries or property damage from today’s incident.

The utility wants to remind everyone to be very, very cautious when working around electric wires. “Fortunately, no one was injured today, but it was an extremely dangerous situation that could have had a much different outcome. Remember, electric wires are live and electric shock can cause serious injury and even death.”