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.