Keeping the lights on has its challenges

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By Jennifer Garcia

Having a reliable electrical system is important for all cities and towns, however, not all cities or towns can say that their electrical system is reliable.

Such was the case for Los Alamos County about a year ago. Plagued by frequent power outages, residents voiced their opinions to council on more than one occasion. Things took a turn for the better, however, when the Department of Public Utilities hired Electrical Engineering Manager Rafael De La Torre last fall.

Since he began working on fixing the county’s electrical problems, DPU customers have experienced fewer power outages, a fact that council and DPU Manager John Arrowsmith acknowledged at the Tuesday night meeting.

“Since Rafael came on, the size of outages has declined,” Arrowsmith said. “A year ago, it seemed like a huge, insurmountable problem, but it just needed some good electrical engineering,” he said of De La Torre’s efforts.

De La Torre, along with Arrowsmith, gave councilors a briefing on the county’s electrical reliability. Though great strides have been made in assuring that the lights stay on all the time, De La Torre pointed out that there are still some obstacles that need to be overcome before he’s completely comfortable with the electrical system.

“Outages will occur because of the aged underground system and the overhead system,” De La Torre said. “My job is to ensure the first thing we do is fix it.” In his brief to council, De La Torre said that line interruptions or outages are inevitable as a result of the aged underground cable failures, cut-ins, overhead line contacts and inclement weather such as wind, rain and snow.

“Though we can’t always prevent outages from occurring in the first place, we can certainly mitigate outages by affecting the least amount of customers when they do occur; in addition, we can work towards preventing the same outage from occurring in the future. However, please be aware that all mitigation requires additional resources and this can pose a challenge from time to time,” he said. “Over the last year we have seen a good improvement on the LAC system reliability.”

Some of the factors that have contributed to the lower number of outages includes: properly coordinated over-current protective devices. All of the OCDs at the townsite substation and Circuit 16 have been properly coordinated so that line contact does not lock out feeders and affect thousands of customers. In White Rock, 10 main-line lateral fuses were replaced with new line reclosers; therefore, what would be permanent outages will now be momentary outages when line contact occur on the overhead system.

In addition, all of the overhead line fuses for Circuits 15 and 16 were replaced and properly coordinated so that line contacts will now affect 5-10 customers as opposed to 30-50 customers. All of the jumpers on Circuits 15 and 16 were insulated so that squirrels and birds do not short out the power line during line contacts. According to De La Torre’s report, this effort has resulted in a drastic drop in animal-caused power outages. Though the DPU does not experience as many animal or squirrel line contacts in White Rock, all lateral and transformer fuses have been replaced there, as well.

According to De La Torre’s report, the main focus at LAC is to keep the lights on at all times while maintaining a safe and reliable electrical grid for their customers and line personnel. However, because of the design, age and maintenance history of the electrical distribution system, moving forward will be challenging.

“We have corrected and addressed the primary problems that can affect system reliability (OCDs and fuses). Fortunately, what we did so happens to be cheap relative to what lies ahead,” De La Torre said. “Currently we have been operating under a reactive mode but we are developing a plan which will allow us to operate in a proactive mode. The ultimate goal is to prevent those outages which can be prevented.” As part of his presentation, De La Torre showed photos of some of the electrical poles around town. He began with a photo of how a pole should look, ideally, followed by photos of poles that have been identified as having problems. Some of the problems include an insulator at the top of a pole, that was about to fall off; a pole that had cracked after a lineman climbed it; a pole that had to be braced to be held in place; and a guide wire that was loose and dangling, among other problems.

De La Torre said that DPU crews are doing what they can to keep the poles up and running, but eventually, the entire overhead system will need to be replaced. In addition, he said that a complete underground line replacement would be nice, but from a priority perspective, it’s just as effective to replace only those underground line sections, which have failed before.

Arrowsmith commented that replacing the overhead system seems to be affordable. Councilor Vincent Chiravalle asked De La Torre how much it would cost to replace all the Delta phase fuses. “About $10 million,” De La Torre responded. “It’s better to replace the whole system than to piece-meal it together.” Following council discussion on the matter, Council Vice Chair Mike Wismer said, “Reliability of electric distribution is of great importance to the community. It’s one that we all need to embrace.”

Though Arrowsmith said early on that the improved reliability was because of De La Torre’s efforts, De La Torre took little credit for the improvements. “My job is easy. It’s our line crew that actually does all the work. I want to make sure they’re acknowledged,” he said.

No action was taken on this agenda item because it was a brief to council.