PNM Blames Lack of Lines for New Mexico Outage : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

March 19, 2000

PNM Blames Lack of Lines for New Mexico Outage

By Chris Roberts

The Associated Press

A weekend power outage that affected as many as 1.6 million people in New Mexico and Texas could have been avoided if the power company had been allowed to build more transmission lines, a company spokesman said Sunday.

"If we had additional transmission lines coming out of the Four Corners area . . . we could have avoided the situation" Saturday, said Don Brown, a Public Service Company of New Mexico spokesman. But residents considered them an eyesore, he said.

The outage  New Mexico's biggest  shut down businesses, disabled traffic lights and cell phones, and left people scrambling to find candles and flashlights Saturday from the northern town of Questa to El Paso, Texas.

It also called upon utility crews to resurrect a familiar routine: Y2K drills.

Workers responded quickly to the crisis, which left them far busier Saturday than on New Year's Eve. They restored power in about six hours

"I really do think the Y2K drills honed our response time," Brown said.

Power from at least three generating stations in northwest New Mexico and Arizona is transmitted on lines that reach a bottleneck in northwest New Mexico. A brush fire near the northern town of Kirtland engulfed one of the lines Saturday afternoon, and smoke particles that conduct electricity caused a short circuit, said Lt. Edmund Neff, a volunteer firefighter with the Valley Fire Department. Fire then engulfed two of the poles supporting the lines.

"When smoke gets up in power lines, it'll make it act like a lightning storm out there," Neff said. "People said there were explosions out there."

When automatic switches transferred the power to another line, it was quickly overloaded and it also shut down. Like dominos falling, line after line overloaded and shut down through the state, Brown said.

The fire apparently started with a controlled burn of dry vegetation on Navajo land that got out of hand about 15 miles southeast of Kirtland, Neff said. Strong winds in northwest New Mexico also fanned the flames, he said.

A message left at the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project office in nearby Farmington wasn't immediately returned Sunday. No one answered the phone at other Navajo offices.

Neff said the fire was out by about 7 p.m. Saturday after the Navajos brought over a tractor that was used to build a fire break. The fire burned about 1,500 acres, he said, adding that none of the poles on the three towers burned through and no firefighters were injured.

During the blackout, the electric company was able to route only about half the electricity needed to power Albuquerque, which meant some areas had to be cut off so high-priority users such as hospitals didn't entirely lose power, Brown said. Brown said more high-capacity transmission lines would have provided an alternate route for the power, which would have avoided outages. Instead, about 1.3 million people in New Mexico lost their electricity. About 300,000 utility customers in El Paso also went without power Saturday.

Brown said the utility tried to get permission to build the additional transmission lines in the mid-1990s, but met with local opposition. "We spent a lot of money and we were never able to erect a single line."

Neff, an electrician, said some northwest New Mexico residents are concerned about possible health effects from the transmission lines. He said that, under the right circumstances, the lines can pose a physical hazard. For example, the electrical power released in one short circuit in the area sliced up a barbed wire fence for about 150 feet.

Brown said he isn't sure what can be done to ensure the same thing doesn't happen again.

"It's hard to speculate on how we would prevent grass fires in the future," he said, adding that the lines are patrolled, but they cross private, public and Indian land.

-- Carl Jenkins (, March 19, 2000

Moderation questions? read the FAQ