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Speaking before the New Mexico House Energy and Natural Resources Committee Feb. 16, LANL scientist Loren Toole offered a technical overview of the”conceptual underpinnings” of New Mexico’s recent natural gas outage, an event that threw several thousand New Mexico households into a winter deep freeze for days.
Toole, a senior research and development engineer in the Global Security directorate, was called in to help piece together the patchwork of information that had come to the New Mexico legislators from the involved organizations, including El Paso Electric, El Paso Natural Gas, New Mexico Gas Company, LANL, New Mexico Oil & Gas Association, and other industry representatives. Serving as part of a panel that also included Toole, they came prepared to assist legislators specifically with questions on
• Why the electric grid occasionally fails to deliver service,
• Potential causes for initiating electric blackouts, and
• Potential impacts of electric blackouts on natural gas compressor stations.
With multiple factors driving the sudden shutdown of the heating source for so many people, it took a big-picture specialist such as Toole to connect the varied dots, such as how an electrical disruption in one state could have a ripple effect on liquid natural gas pipelines hundreds of miles away.
During the multi-day deep freeze that had lowered an icy, Arctic-air blanket over the state, the Laboratory had called upon Toole and additional in-house infrastructure specialists in the Decision Applications Division to assist New Mexico Gas Company with its planning, but LANL also put a variety of physical responses into play on site.
At the first sign of the natural gas problem, the Department of Energy’s NNSA Site Office Manager in Los Alamos
directed activation of the Laboratory’s Emergency Operations Center, and he played a critical rapid response role in directing a shut-down of the Laboratory and coordinating with civic leaders, pueblos and first responders to ensure shelters were in place and that they had needed supplies. Approximately 25 union pipefitters were sent out from LANL to assist New Mexico Gas Company with gas restoration throughout the area.
In addition,”one of the first things we did early on was to proactively switch the Laboratory’s central steam heating and power generation source from natural gas to diesel fuel that afternoon. We saved approximately 9,196 MMBtu of natural gas over the period we switched to fuel oil and immediately reduced the gas demand on the system,” said Kevin Smith, the site office manager.
“In addition to closing the lab, we were able to safely turn the power off to the majority of three central computing centers that house our supercomputers and other systems. I’ll note this is an extremely rare event,” said Smith. Overall, LANL was able to divert 14 megawatts of power to the electric grid within just three hours to meet rising electricity needs such as for electric space-heater use.
In followup planning and preparation sessions with the legislature and the varied infrastructure players, Decision Applications Division staff members will be continuing to offer computer modeling and insights into how to prevent such an event from reoccurring.
Los Alamos has developed an extensive infrastructure modeling capability for the Federal government that simulates catastrophic effects of natural or manmade disasters on the energy and communications infrastructure. This capability has been used repeatedly over the past decade to understand root causes of widespread failures, such as the 2003 electric grid blackout that impacted the northeast US.
The LANL infrastructure analysis team, based in the Infrastructure and Energy Analysis group, also studies infrastructure systems year-round to predict requirements for emergency response and restoration of service to minimize public impact and to help policy makers and emergency planners anticipate potential failure points.
Because infrastructure systems such as the electrical grid, natural gas network, and telecommunication systems are interconnected, cascading failures are often the most destructive and difficult to predict in advance, noted Toole.”In the case of the recent NM gas outage, this scenario developed too quickly to support engagement during the crisis, but our capability is potentially useful to test scenarios that will strengthen the resilience of the system in the future,” he said.