Fault in line leaves residents in the dark

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4,150 utility customers were without power for up to three hours

By Kirsten Laskey

A fault in an underground power line near the Community Building resulted in 4,150 utility customers to losing electricity Wednesday morning.
The power outage started at 5:13 a.m. Wednesday. In a press release, Los Alamos Public Utilities Department Utility Manager John Arrowsmith said, “Although the root cause of this outage was an underground line fault, incorrect settings on protective devices multiplied the effects. The DPU has a plan in place to replace critical underground infrastructure at the fault area and is working on protocols to ensure that our protective devices are coordinated.”
Allison Scott Majure of the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) said linemen working at the DPU/Los Alamos National Laboratory substation at TA-3 restored power to Barranca Mesa and North Mesa by 5:40 a.m.
Work had to be halted while LANL went through its protocols in regards to the outage, Scott Majure said.
At 7:15 a.m., she said that power was restored in the downtown area as well as the western area. Finally, power was restored to all of the North Community by 8:40 a.m.
Electrical Engineering Manager Rafael De La Torre said part of the problem involved double circuit feeder 15 and 16, or one pole with two lines. This double circuit has experienced numerous power outages over the years, particularly in its overhead portions. The first 8/10 of a mile of the double circuit is underground, or a line that is buried in the ground.
The overhead section, which are the lines that are strung on poles, goes from the south side of Pueblo Canyon, spans over the canyon and through the Los Alamos Golf Course. Circuit 16 heads east while circuit 15 heads west.
These circuits have been involved in major blackouts such as the one experienced in August.
De La Torre said the double circuit has been deemed critical because “essentially you have two power lines on one pole and it affects the most customers in our system.”
He said 3,500 people receive their power from these circuits.
But it’s not just these
particular circuits that are at risk for problems. The whole system is getting old.
De La Torre said in general the overhead system is between 45-60 years old, which means it is operating at the end of its useful life. The useful life of an overhead system is
50 years, he said.
The underground system is also experiencing old age.  La Torre said it was built in the 1970s and the life of an underground system is 30-40 years.
In response to an aged infrastructure and mounting reliability issues, the DPU is looking to replace its overhead and underground systems.
For the overhead lines, De La Torre said, the DPU plans to make seven major upgrades in seven years. For the underground system, he said, it is too expensive to replace it all at once, so the department plans to replace it in sections. If an underground cable is functioning, it will be left alone. If a section of underground lines fail, then it will be placed as a priority, De La Torre said.
Majure pointed out that to improve the electric infrastructure takes funds and the county charter requires that improvements to the infrastructure must come from electric rates. As a result, the DPU is working to request a 10 percent rate increase from Los Alamos County Council.
Council tabled the request to raise rates during its meeting Aug. 24. It will return to the issue Oct. 26.
De La Torre stressed the importance of getting the rate increase. “We can’t afford any more delays because we basically exhausted all the time available. We either start replacing or we’ll see (the) affect on the reliability of the system.”
Majure said an analysis was done and electric customers, on average, would pay $5.12 more a month for 500 kilowatt hours a month.
De La Torre said he worked at the Jemez Co-op for 17 years and while infrastructure problems are not unique to Los Alamos, he said the Jemez Co-op has the advantage of being able to borrow more money and repay it over a longer period of time than Los Alamos, plus, the co-op has a larger customer base so the impact of paying higher rates is not as great.
De La Torre said the DPU recognizes that no one wants to live with constant outages and customers are right to be upset when power outages occur. However, he said the DPU is working to improve reliability and when the infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life, “there’s only so much that can be done.”