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Lessons Learned: Proactive Texas Utility Weathers 2021 Winter Storm Decade After Freeze Issues

Proactive Texas Utility Weathers 2021 Winter Storm Decade After Freeze Issues

Project Name
El Paso Electric Company Cold Weather Protection Assessment
Location
El Paso, Texas
Client
El Paso Electric

In Texas, the scene appeared almost apocalyptic: A powerful mid-February winter storm that blanketed the state with snow, ice and record low temperatures knocked out power and heat to millions of homes and businesses for days. Dozens died, water service was disrupted, and questions abounded about the grid’s vulnerability to cataclysmic weather events at a time of mounting concerns about climate change.

But in the state’s far-western city of 680,000-resident El Paso, the outcome was far different. Of more than 443,000 retail and wholesale customers of regional utility El Paso Electric, fewer than 3,000 customers in El Paso lost power during the polar vortex that brought some of the coldest recorded temperatures in the state’s history, and those outages proved short.

El Paso Electric’s more favorable showing wasn’t merely because it was on a different grid than most of the rest of Texas. Civic leaders and the utility credit their actions taken after a similar storm knocked out power and water in the city, prompting them to enlist consultation from critical infrastructure solutions leader Black & Veatch and spend millions to winterize their generation, transmission and distribution assets, even if such winter storms are uncommon there.

In the latest wintery assault, that proactive investment proved invaluable.

“I think from El Paso Electric and all of its employees, this was personal. And we made a commitment in 2011 that we said, ‘We’re never going to let this happen again.’ And, our employees made the changes that were necessary,” Steve Buraczyk, El Paso Electric’s senior vice president of operations, recently told central Texas’ KXAN-TV.

El Paso Electric: A Path Toward Winter Resilience

By any measure, the 2011 wintery onslaught was historic in many parts of Texas in terms of temperatures and duration. For the El Paso area, it was surpassed by just four prior recorded cold weather events, making that storm the region’s worst weather event in roughly a half century.

During that traumatic 2011 storm, according to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report, El Paso Electric – serving a 10,000 square mile area of the Rio Grande Valley in western Texas and southern New Mexico – lost many of its power generators and took days to get those units running.

What went wrong for El Paso Electric was a cascading event. As part of the storm that brought the lowest temperatures in the city in several decades, instruments began to freeze, as did water being piped into the utility’s power plants. Systems then failed, and outages followed. The Public Utilities Commission of Texas later concluded that “designed cold weather tolerances of El Paso Electric Co.’s current generation equipment and/or weatherization preparation were inadequate to prevent failures in the conditions during the event timeframe.”

Intent on never seeing that happen again, the utility over the ensuing 18 months spent $4.5 million to winterize two of its older power plants and in 2016 fired up a new one – fueled by oil and gas – with the latest winterization technology, girding those generation sites against temperatures as low as 10 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Along the way, Black & Veatch – extensively experienced in designing and installing cold-weather power systems – was the trusted doctor, called in to give El Paso Electric’s existing assets a rigorous, top-to-bottom physical.

Black & Veatch zeroed in on the likeliest causes of system failure during a freeze, no matter if that kind of extreme wintry weather typically was the exception and not the norm. The company’s experts methodically examined feedwater and drum levels – faulty drum levels and frozen instrumentation drew much of the blame in 2011 – while scrutinizing measurement piping in systems often decades old, scoping out leaks that dampened insulation and dramatically crimped its effectiveness. Visual audits also focused on blowdowns and steam drains, sleuthing out vulnerabilities that could trip the system.

Special scrutiny was devoted to freeze protection systems that were approaching the end of their lifecycles and were more susceptible to failing, most notably pipe-warming heat trace cables that age more rapidly than power cables because they get hot by design.

What Black & Veatch developed for the utility were maintenance checklists – one specific to prepping for and better enduring winter months – and offered intensive training on work processes and upkeep workflow.

Sometimes, “it takes just minor modifications to literally get you through the storm,” said Black & Veatch’s Dustin Rogge, a microgrid solutions manager who, as an engineering manager in 2011, helped guide El Paso Electric through its freeze protection review and mitigation.

El Paso Electric also has systemic insurance, of sorts, that helps complement its resilience against icy weather. Connected to a portion of the national energy grid, the utility can get backup power resources when necessary. And it can switch a power plant’s fuel on the fly from natural gas to diesel – flexibility that proved crucial in keeping the electricity flowing during the 2021 storm.

Building Resilience: The Next Step for Utilities

With climate change stoking the likelihood of severe, historic weather events, testing U.S. electric grids and energy supply systems, utilities would be well-served following El Paso Electric’s example, assessing their vulnerabilities and taking appropriate, aggressive steps to harden their assets to bolster grid integrity. One thing is certain: Objective evaluation, robust action and long-term planning increasingly should be part of the operational mindset.

Black & Veatch can offer solutions, analyzing infrastructure assets, ascertaining which systems are most vulnerable during extreme weather events, and helping asset owners and operators calibrate risks while pinpointing needed, critical and innovative modifications and upgrades. 

Effectively planning for winterization requires a broad view across the portfolio of generation facilities, transmission and distribution infrastructure and grid operations, and interconnected infrastructure, including the supply of applicable fuels.

Ideally, winterization programs should begin with roadmaps that allow owners to allocate capital most effectively, assigning resources where they are needed at the right time. And they should include data analytics software such as Black & Veatch’s ASSET360, which alerts operators to potential issues before they undermine system integrity.

A relatively simple blueprint that, in the event of the next polar blitz, could keep utilities from being left out in the cold.

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