Energy Adviser: Delivering power a matter of balance

Flick a switch, plug in your phone, turn on the AC and there it is — the electricity that animates nearly every aspect of our lives.

The power Clark Public Utilities delivers to customers is produced from a variety of sources across the Northwest, sometimes produced hundreds of miles away. The safe, reliable and constant production of that power requires round-the-clock monitoring, maintenance, engineering along a tremendous and complex infrastructure.

Many public utility districts in Washington purchase all of their power from the Bonneville Power Administration. Clark Public Utilities does things a little differently. The utility purchases about 68 percent of it power, the majority of which (about 51 percent) is produced by hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin. The second-largest source of the utility’s power is the River Road Generating Plant in Vancouver, which makes about 30 percent. The remaining power is produced by a combination of nuclear, wind and other sources.

When electricity is first generated, it’s kind of like a raw material. It needs to be prepared for transit and then transformed to fit each customer’s needs.

Once it’s produced, a transformer prepares the electricity to move long distances by stepping it up from about 14,000 volts to anywhere between 100,000 and 765,000 volts. At those levels it’s ready to travel across transmission lines.

Transmission lines span enormous distances to deliver power from the source to where it’s needed, and that’s where local utilities come in. They receive that energy, bring it down to useful levels and distribute it to their communities.

Clark Public Utilities delivers roughly 4.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually to about 225,000 customers through a grid of 6,600 miles of transmission and distribution lines, attached to 62,000 power poles and running through 55 substations throughout the county.

Utilities are tasked with a major job. They have to balance customer demand with available supply. Failure to do so will lead to outages and power failures. Not only that, but certain industries require very clean and consistent power. Highly technical machinery can be significantly impacted by the slightest fluctuations, and that can cost area job creators time and money.

Utilities use strategically sited substations to step-down electricity to the tens of thousands of volts. Those levels are ideal for flows around the local utility grid, but still far too high for all but a few customers.

Distribution transformers bring the power down to more applicable levels. Transformers are around every neighborhood. Those serving buried utility lines are identifiable by the big green boxes placed near the street. Overhead lines rely on the large gray cylinder transformers hung high on power poles. Those devices step down the power further to 120/240 volts, the level used in most residential homes.

Of course, some customers need more energy than that and Clark Public Utilities is happy to customize the feed to meet their needs.

The last leg of the journey is the customer’s property. When the electricity leaves the transformer it travels along a service line and into the meter on the side of the home or business.

Clark Public Utilities strives to deliver at-cost, reliable service and restore outages quickly. Customers can help keep outages brief by reporting them as soon as they happen, either by calling 360-992-8000 or reporting outages at the utility’s website.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98688

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