Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

By Pat Caldwell

Electricity is one of the definitive elements of modern society.

The electricity that surges through the massive American power grid lights our homes, heats our kitchens and personifies progress.

Until it suddenly goes out.

In a flash, all of our seemingly state-of-the-art pieces of technology are transformed into blocks of plastic and glass.

Last weekend residents in Union County - and a few in Baker County - suffered through several power outages, including one that left a large number of people in the dark. The culprit in both counties - in one form or another - was wind.

Weather plays a central role in sudden power shutdowns but small animals also sometimes make an impact on the grid, Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative spokesman Jim Horan said.

"Generally the cause is wind. It is usually a contributing factor," Horan said.

Wind-produced power outages hit Wolf Creek in Baker County Friday night and sparked a power shutdown in Island City Saturday. A third blackout early Sunday in Union County thrust about 7,000 people into the dark.

While high winds triggered the power outages last weekend, Horan said that particular weather phenomenon is just one of a number of causes that often stymie power companies.

Horan said heat and tree branches also often contribute to power shutdowns.

Trees planted too close to power lines can create havoc during a storm, Horan said.

"More often than not, when you have wind, a branch will fly in and cause a fault," he said.

That is why, Horan said, OTEC is vigilant about its program to trim trees near its power lines.

"We are also going out and encouraging people to plant away from power lines. There are OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rules saying how far you can plant a tree near a power line," Horan said.

Then, Horan said, there are the little animals than can make a big impact on the power grid.

"Nationwide 10 percent of outages are caused by wildlife. We tend to see a lot of cows and ravens here," he said.

In 2007, a squirrel entered a substation in Michigan and sparked an outage that impacted 1,400 people.

Heat can also create problems for power lines, Horan said.

"Electricity tends to heat things up. The more usage on a line, the hotter the line gets. Lines get so hot they sag," he said.

When the line sags it has the potential to hit a tree or some other object and knock out power.

"Equipment failure also happens for a range of issues," Horan said.

OTEC serves more than 30,000 customers in Baker, Grant, Harney and Union counties.