Electricity primer: Not being connected to rest of Texas helped El Paso in cold wave

Written by MLHA Team

April 8, 2021

El Paso escaped the massive power outages seen in much of Texas this week mostly because El Paso Electric is not in the Texas power grid, which is one of three major power grids in the United States. The Texas grid had massive power outages due to power plant problems caused by extreme cold temperatures.

El Paso Electric is part of the Western power grid overseen by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council. It covers 14 Western states; Northern Baja, Mexico; and two Canadian provinces. 

It made geographical sense for El Paso Electric to connect to the Western grid in Albuquerque about 60 years ago to bring in power from the Four Corners power plant in New Mexico. Later, additional connections were made in Arizona to bring power from the Palo Verde nuclear power plant, near Phoenix, which began operating in the 1980s, said Steven Buraczyk, senior vice president of operations.

El Paso Electric sold its interest in the coal-fired Four Corners plant and stopped getting power from it in 2016. About half its power comes from the Palo Verde plant, of which EPE is a part owner.

“It wouldn’t be cost effective to build hundreds of miles of high voltage power lines to connect to the Texas grid,” Buraczyk said.

More:Why is Texas one of few states with its own power grid?

If EPE were connected to the Texas grid, then it might have been required to adhere to rolling blackouts instituted by the nonprofit Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which manages the Texas grid.

Extended power outages and rolling blackouts came after many Texas power plants shut down early Feb. 15 due to frozen equipment and problems getting natural gas to supply them when power demand increased to heat homes and businesses, ERCOT officials said. Wind turbine blades also froze, shutting down many wind generators, they said.

Rolling blackouts in the Western grid are usually localized around problems in individual cities because the grid is so large, Buraczyk said.

In the first week of February 2011, EPE had to resort to rolling blackouts because several days of single-digit to below-zero temperatures caused equipment to freeze at its decades-old Newman and Rio Grande power plants, which shut down.

Millions of dollars of damage were done to homes, businesses and other buildings after water pipes froze and broke in the record-breaking frigid weather.

El Paso Electric and power providers in other parts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona were criticized in a federal report issued several months after the big freeze for having inadequate winterization procedures. 

More: El Paso Electric prepares for power plant project, eyes hydrogen generator option

After that event, EPE spent $4.5 million to repair and better winterize its old Newman, Rio Grande and Copper power plants, EPE officials said. It also resulted in EPE’s Montana power plant and a Rio Grande plant generator, added after the 2011 freeze, to be designed to withstand below-freezing temperatures, Buraczyk said.

The record cold hitting Texas this week and across much of the country brought natural gas supply problems to many electric utilities with natural-gas-fired power plants, including EPE. That’s prompted the utility to buy more power on the open market, Buraczyk said.

The Montana power plant, designed to run on either natural gas or fuel oil, has been running on fuel oil in recent days because of the natural gas supply problems, Buraczyk said.

While much of Texas had huge demands for electric power in the severe cold wave, El Paso’s less-severe cold weather didn’t cause the same problem.

More: El Paso median resale home price hits record $177,800 in 2020’s hot real estate market

On Sunday, when El Paso temperatures dropped to the teens, EPE’s peak electric demand hit approximately 1,130 megawatts, reported George De La Torre, an EPE spokesman. That’s on par with previous years, he said.

That’s well below this past summer’s record peak electric demand of 2,173 megawatts during a July heat wave, when temperatures were well over 100 degrees.

Vic Kolenc may be reached at 546-6421; vkolenc@elpasotimes.com@vickolenc on Twitter.

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