Utility investigates ‘longer blackout than usual’ in Delta Junction

trucks on tundra on a sunny day
Golden Valley crewmember John Gebhardt, a journeyman lineman, helps drag a pole into place on Friday out in a remote spot in Shaw Creek Flats, a swampy area about 20 miles north of Delta Junction where a pole structure holding the GVEA transmission line collapsed Thursday night. (Golden Valley Electric Association/Facebook)

Golden Valley Electric Association is investigating what went wrong with a generator that failed to provide backup power to Delta Junction on Thursday and Friday, leaving the Interior community in a blackout that lasted about 15 hours.

The power went out around 9:30 p.m. Thursday, just as the folks in Delta, like everywhere else, were gearing up for the Memorial Day holiday.

“It was a series of outages that affected most of Delta and surrounding areas,” Golden Valley spokesperson Meadow Bailey said Monday. “In total, there were over 2,300 members who were without power.”

Bailey said the blackout was caused by the collapse of a pole structure that holds up the 138-kilovolt transmission line where it runs through Shaw Creek flats — a swampy, hard-to-get-to area about 20 miles north of Delta.

“Part of the challenge was the location — y’know, it was in water,” Bailey said. “To be able to get crews out there and then to be able to get it to stand back up, just took time.”

Golden Valley Journeyman Lineman John Gebhardt and James Hagen, along with Lineman Apprentice Vladmir Didenko, prepare to augur a hole for the new poles. (GVEA/Facebook)

Bailey said Golden Valley’s operations staff hasn’t had to deal with a pole collapse for at least the past 20 years. She said the structure appeared to be tilted a bit when a helicopter patrolled the line earlier this month, but it didn’t seem in danger of failure. Then that problem was compounded by another: a malfunction that kept the 27-megawatt backup generator at Golden Valley’s Delta substation from operating.

“So it’s an unusual circumstance, in that our backup didn’t start as anticipated,” she said. “At this point, we’re not sure exactly what happened. Of course, we’re looking into that … and then to make repairs so that doesn’t happen again in the future.”

Golden Valley acquired the generator when it bought out the old Fairbanks Municipal Utility System in 1997. It was moved to Delta and installed in the substation just south of town back in 2005. Bailey said the generator is inspected bimonthly and maintained annually — most recently last month, when it was started and tested.

“We recognize it is an older plant,” she said. “We use it in emergency situations as a backup — a situation like this.”

Bailey said Golden Valley dispatched 15 crew members to work on the generator, in addition to the nine it had sent to repair the pole structure. Meanwhile, Fort Greely fired up its backup generators soon after the power went out Thursday night, as did the area’s two big industrial customers — trans-Alaska pipeline pump station 9 and the Pogo gold mine. And, the City of Delta cranked-up its generators.

“We spent a lot of time at the fire department making sure their generators were up and going,” City Administrator Ken Greenleaf said Monday. “We actually went down and got the landfill open for business as usual.”

Greenleaf said a lot of folks were concerned about the situation on Friday morning, including local restaurants that were scrambling to keep food refrigerated and locals and tourists hoping to fill their tank on the way to a weekend camping or fishing trip. Luckily, one of the local gas stations had its own power supply, and Greenleaf said he was one of customers lined up there Friday morning to get fuel to run his home and business generators.

“I know it was very, very challenging for a lot of people,” he said. “I think, like everything else in Delta, the community has kind of embraced the suck, and figured out to get things done.”

Bailey said Golden Valley regrets that the community had to endure the 15-hour power outage.

“This was definitely a longer blackout than usual,” she said. “And we really appreciate everybody’s patience with us as we worked to restore both the Delta plant and to get the pole back up and get that line energized.”

Bailey reminds Golden Valley members to check out information on the co-op’s website on how to be prepared for power outages

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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