Storm in the Desert: The Aftermath

After a brutally cold couple of days, our temperature is going to be in the mid-50s’ today and get up to 65 by Tuesday. What the recent weather revealed is that our regional energy infrastructure is on life support.

We received 2″ of snow on Tuesday night. The temperature dove from 23 on Wednesday morning to -7 on Thursday morning. Tuesday morning the electricity went off in Las Cruces at 8 in the morning.

The utility, El Paso Electric, reported that their local generators were offline and they didn’t have sufficient local capacity to meet the increased demand because of the storm and were trying to buy electricity from other parts of Texas on the spot market.

They started a series of  planned “rolling blackouts” in which different areas in their service area of southern New Mexico and west Texas were blacked out for up to 2 hours at a stretch. They requested that all schools in Las Cruces and El Paso, including UTEP and NMSU, all government offices, all retail businesses and offices, White Sands Missile Range, and Fort Bliss shut down until they could restore service to the offline generators. The blackouts continued through last night. I wonder if they have successfully booted the offline generators.

Our local press and government officials have rolled over themselves on the problem and don’t seem to be in an investigative mood. After numerous complaint from ordinary citizens, El Paso Electric confessed yesterday afternoon that the generators had been offline prior to the storm and by the time they tried to get them up it was too cold to keep them running. These are very old generators which were not designed to run in cold temperatures. Note, however, that the utility had advance warning on this storm for at least 5 days before it occurred. Temperatures were in the high 40s on Monday before the storm.

The city then requested that we conserve water because all the wells use electric pumps.

The general shortage of electricity in West Texas caused natural gas shortages across New Mexico. The principle natural gas utility servicing most of New Mexico was unable to get natural gas through the pipelines from west Texas. Las Cruces had enough natural gas but areas as close as the Tularosa Basin on the east side of the Organs were gas free. Towns started opening warming shelters.

Temperatures are now warm enough that the electricity is flowing and the gas is flowing. But, pilot lights can only be started by trained personnel and it will take up to 6 days to get all the pilot lights lit. The gas company is recruiting personnel from utilities as far away as Michigan and have agreed to allow firefighters and other first-responders to do the job. Before the pilot lits can be lit, everything has to be inspected. I wonder how many systems will fail the inspection in all the small towns across New Mexico.

It’s clear to me that we really do need the major infrastructure and clean energy improvements highlighted by President Obama in his State of the Union Speech. El Paso Electric is planning a major solar concentration plant close to where one of the failed generators is in Southern New Mexico but construction isn’t planned until 2013 because the utility is loath to spend money on major capital improvements. El Paso Electric has been at maximum capacity for several years now with little investment in capital improvements and apparently sketchy maintenance.

Northeastern New Mexico which is an epicenter of the natural gas crisis is one of the best areas for wind turbines in the US but there are no major grids nearby to transmit the electricity generated. A joint State-private group has been trying to plan the construction of the grid for several years now and not making a lot of progress in getting the job done. Maybe this event will get both of these infrastructure projects moving.

Update: 02/06/2011:

Rolling blackouts damaged the water distribution system in El Paso and El Paso now has a major water crisis. The city has asked schools and business to close to conserve water. In addition, previously frozen pipes have thawed and and are now leaking across the region.

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About ViAnn

Progressive retired geek who loves to play golf
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