LA DPU plans for shortages

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Utilities > Gas provider better prepared for extreme weather

By Arin McKenna

In February 2011, large parts of New Mexico lost natural gas supplies in bitterly cold weather similar to what the state is experiencing now.

Department of Public Utilities Manager John Arrowsmith said that although New Mexico Gas Company has not finalized plans for dealing with such an emergency, it is better prepared to deal with issues as they arise.

“I think they are a lot more vigilant about the supply to their system and the demands on their system and I think they’re working with the various groups to try to remedy the problem, to either make sure they have additional compression or additional facilities online or, if there is a crisis, to identify it early and ask each one of the users of the system to cut their use in advance of a collapse,” Arrowsmith said.

The crisis two years ago resulted when areas of Texas and Southern New Mexico lost electrical power, compromising NMGC’s ability to compress gas. That dropped pressure in the line and NMGC decided to shut down supplies to Bernalillo, parts of Albuquerque and Northern New Mexico in order to maintain sufficient pressure in the rest of its lines.

Los Alamos County and Los Alamos National Laboratory were not affected by the crisis because they are what is referred to as transportation customers. The county’s gas is supplied by Conoco Phillips from the Four Corners region, with NMGC providing the lines for transporting it and the compression to keep the gas pressurized.

The county could, however, be affected by plans NMGC is developing to prevent a recurrence of the 2011 emergency.

So DPU has been developing contingency plans to deal with reductions in gas supply should the need arise.

“Since that time they’re (NMGC) trying to stay more on top of it and trying to keep track of what the pressures are, what the sources are, what the demands are and try to take steps before that crisis to prevent having to shut people off,” Arrowsmith said.

Utilities such as DPU “nominate” how much gas they expect to use, basically requesting that amount from their supplier. An average winter day in Los Alamos requires 5,000 MMBTUs, or 5,000 million BTUs. On the crisis day in February 2011, the county used 9,000 MMBTUs.

NMGC is considering one plan, which would assess penalties for customers that exceed the amount of gas they nominate by more than 10 percent.

In the meantime, Arrowsmith said that NMGC is working to do a better job of staying on top of things.

“They don’t want to lose pressure in their system, so they have ideas on how to maintain pressure in that system. And the only way they could do that if they lose supply is to cut the demand.”

Arrowsmith said that if something happened to threaten the system, such as a contractor cutting a pipeline, a compressor station going down or a gas supplier losing its ability to deliver, NMGC might notify DPU that it could only supply a percentage of the gas DPU nominated, say 6,000 MMBTUS instead of 8,000 MMBTUs.

“So we have to come up with a plan as to how we would comply with that,” Arrowsmith said.
DPU would first work with facilities people for large customers to reduce their usage. For example, heat could be cut off to the pool at the Larry R. Walkup Aquatic Center or other large consumers would agree to turn their heat down.

“So before we cut anyone off, we want to work with our largest customers to see how much we could reduce by just turning off certain things that would have the least impact on our citizens,” Arrowsmith said. “If we couldn’t get enough curtailment from that, then we would go to the rolling blackout plan.”

The rolling blackouts would be designed to cut off each circuit for an hour to an hour and a half. During that time furnaces could not turn on, reducing the amount of gas usage. Before any homes got too cold, power would be restored and another area of the county would be shut off.

“The reason we would do that instead of just cutting off the gas is that reconnecting the gas or resupplying the gas is a lot more difficult than just turning on the power,” Arrowsmith said.

Once gas is shut off, utility workers must shut off gas to every home, purge and re-pressurize the line, then turn each customer’s gas back on and relight their pilots.

“That can be very time consuming and trying to coordinate that with people’s schedules is difficult,” DPU Public Relations Manager Julie Williams-Hill said.

Arrowsmith said rolling blackouts would hopefully reduce usage enough so the county could ride out the shortage until the supply problem could be fixed.

“The theory is spreading out the pain versus having severe pain for a small — or it could be a large group of customers — spreading that inconvenience around so it’s less devastating to individuals,” Arrowsmith said.

DPU would use the Code Red reverse 911 system to notify customers of the impending blackouts. The message would direct customers to go to the county’s website, Facebook or Twitter accounts to find out when the blackouts would affect their areas.

The reverse 911 system automatically contacts any landlines within the targeted area. If gas reductions were minor, only some segments of the county might be affected. Code Red is designed to either target specific areas for notification or send a message to every county landline.

Williams-Hill urges customers without landlines to go to the county’s Emergency Management page losalamosnm.us/EMO/Pages/default.aspx to sign up for Code Red alerts by cell phone voice mail, text message or by email.

“If people have a landline, they don’t have to do anything to be notified,” Williams-Hill said. “If they don’t have a landline, it’s really in their best interest to sign up for the Code Red and put in your cell phone or your email or some way the county can communicate emergency messages to our citizens.”