New Mexico Power Outage Update: 1,600,000 impacted--"This is what we thought it would be like for Y2K" : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

New Mexico Power Outage Update: 1,600,000 impacted--"This is what we thought it would be like for Y2K"

Sunday, March 19, 2000

Lights Out New Mexico

By Loie Fecteau Journal Staff Writer

A major power outage knocked out lights, traffic signals, telephone lines and cellular phones across New Mexico on Saturday, darkening houses and businesses as far north as Questa and stretching south into El Paso.

"This is easily the biggest outage we've ever had," said PNM spokesman Don Brown.

Rotating blackouts and brownouts hit Albuquerque, Belen, Clayton, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Grants, Socorro, Edgewood, Las Vegas, N.M., and El Paso.

The outages began about 4:30 p.m., and lights began to come back on in Albuquerque about 6:30 p.m.

Police and fire officials, swamped with calls, asked people not to call 911 except in the case of true emergencies.

"Everybody is going to have to act responsibly," Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca said Saturday evening. "I think we're going to get through this just fine."

Baca asked that people who had to go out because of an emergency drive to the nearest fire station to report the problem.

Traffic was backed up throughout Albuquerque as traffic lights went dark. Officials in radio and television interviews pleaded with motorists to stay off the roads.

The outages snarled traffic, closed businesses, forced hospitals to go to emergency power and prompted officials to open emergency centers in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and elsewhere.

The state high school basketball championships had to be halted for nearly an hour when the lights went out in the Pan American Center in Las Cruces.

The outage apparently was caused by a 500-acre grass fire southwest of Farmington, Brown said. Three main transmission lines that feed power from the Four Corners area to much of New Mexico were affected.

The fire burned two transmission poles, and smoke, which is a conductor of electricity, caused some of the lines to arc and short. About 360,000 PNM customers in New Mexico were affected, along with about one-third of El Paso Electric Co.'s 290,000 customers in El Paso and Las Cruces. Customers of some rural electric co-ops also were affected.

Southwestern Public Service Co., which serves the southeastern quarter of the state, is on a separate power grid and was not affected Saturday, said spokesman Bill Crenshaw. The company supplied emergency backup power to some of the affected utilities.

Outside of Trombino Italian Trattoria on Academy NE in Albuquerque, about a dozen employees stood around waiting for the lights to come on.

Shawn Spain, a supervisor, said he was watching "the crazy people speed through the lights."

"We haven't been doing anything," he said.

Albuquerque police Sgt. Jan Olstad, who was sitting outside of a Circle K on Academy in his patrol car, said, "This is what we thought it would be like for Y2K.

"Of course, that was planned for," Olstad said. "Y2K was a practice session for us tonight."

Albuquerque and Bernalillo County activated their emergency operation center on the West Side for a short time to coordinate fire and police response. The center was last manned on New Year's Eve to make sure no problems occurred because of Y2K. Albuquerque police put about 90 extra officers on the streets.

The state emergency management center outside Santa Fe also was activated.

Baca was on a cordless phone with city Chief Administrative Office Lawrence Rael when power failed at Baca's house.

"We knew something serious was going on," Baca said at the emergency operations center.

Baca said his cordless phone was out, and his cellular phone didn't work, so he got on his police radio and told APD dispatchers to activate the operations center.

"It worked like it was supposed to," Baca said. "I'm very proud of how everybody worked together, including the media."

APD Chief Jerry Galvin also was at the operations center. He said one of the biggest problems the city had was the failure of traffic signals, which led to some accidents.

But Galvin said no major accidents were reported. There were some break-ins at businesses during the blackout, he said, but he did not consider it looting.

Hospitals scrambled to keep running on emergency generators during the outages.

"We're on backup generators," said Don Butterfield, spokesman for University Hospital in Albuquerque. "Everything's going OK. ... All of our critical care facilities are running as normal, and patient care is not being compromised." In Santa Fe, the power went out completely just after 5 p.m., and a flurry of minor traffic accidents were reported.

The Santa Fe Police Department had officers directing traffic at major intersections, although neither Santa Fe police nor the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Department reported any major traffic accidents.

St. Vincent Hospital's backup generators supplied the hospital with power for the duration of the blackout, and power was restored about 8 p.m.

KOB-AM (770) was one of the few radio stations in Albuquerque that was able to stay on the air. The station was used by Baca and other officials to give updates about the situation.

"We have to stay on the air," said Richard Eeds, KOB assistant program director. "We're the emergency activation station, and our backup power kicks in automatically any time there's a problem. We have several transmitters out in the North Valley, and we basically won't go off the air."

Some El Paso Electric Co. customers in El Paso and Las Cruces were without power starting about 4:45 p.m. The utility shut off power to many customers to avoid having the entire distribution system go off-line, said Richard Swartz, business unit leader for distribution in Las Cruces.

"We did some load-shedding when the system became unstable, so we had large portions of El Paso and Doqa Ana County that were out," Swartz said.

When the power supply from a transmission line that extends from Las Cruces north to Albuquerque began to fluctuate, El Paso Electric's power supply began shutting down automatically, said utility spokesman Henry Quintana Jr.

If the utility doesn't shut down power to some customers as energy supplies decline, "the system will just slowly drag down and then everything would shut off, and then you get a total blackout," Swartz said.

Most customers in the Las Cruces area were without power for less than an hour, Swartz said.

The outage halted play for 42 minutes during the Boys State High School Basketball Tournament. Los Alamos and Aztec were on the court in the third quarter of the AAA championship game.

Teams stayed on the court during the blackout, alternately taking warm-up shots and sitting on the bench, and about 1,500 fans stayed in the bleachers. Emergency lights eventually lit part of the court.

Los Alamos went on to win the championship, 69-45.

Lights went out at the end of a daylong conference on urban sprawl and poverty at the Best Western Mesilla Valley Inn in Las Cruces, causing several dozen participants to conduct the end of a forum in the semidarkness afforded by emergency lights.

"It created a cozy, campfire light atmosphere," said Bess Metcalf, director of the El Paso-based Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Coalition.

-- Carl Jenkins (, March 19, 2000


New Mexico blackout may have been prevented by more lines Copyright ) 2000 Nando Media


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (March 20, 2000 7:35 a.m. EST - A weekend power outage triggered by a 1,500-acre grass fire cut electricity to as many as 1.6 million people in New Mexico and Texas, closing businesses, disabling traffic lights and leaving cell phones dead.

A Public Service Company of New Mexico official said Sunday the outage - New Mexico's largest - could have been avoided if the utility had been allowed to build more transmission lines.

"If we had additional transmission lines coming out of the Four Corners area ... we could have avoided the situation," but residents considered them an eyesore, spokesman Don Brown said.

Stretching from the northern town of Questa to El Paso, Texas, the blackout called upon utility crews to resurrect a familiar routine: Y2K drills.

Workers were far busier Saturday than on New Year's Eve, restoring 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 automatic switches transferred the power to another line, it was quickly overloaded and it also shut down. 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.

Neff said the fire was out by about 7 p.m. Saturday. No firefighters were injured.

Lorenzo Bates, general manager of Navajo Agriculture Products Industry, told the Albuquerque Journal in Monday's editions that the fire was not planned.

"There's no reason for us to have a controlled burn with those dry winds," Bates said. "It looks like someone flipped a cigarette out there."

The Navajo Nation may conduct an investigation, he said.

"I suspect there'll be a lot of fingerpointing as to who was responsible," Bates said.

The state Public Regulation Commission plans its own investigation, Commissioner Herb Hughes said Sunday.

Brown said the utility tried to get permission to build the additional 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."

He said more high-capacity transmission lines would have provided an alternate route for the power. Instead, about 1.3 million people in New Mexico lost their electricity. About 300,000 utility customers in El Paso also were affected.

He said more high-capacity transmission lines would have provided an alternate route for the power. Instead, about 1.3 million people in New Mexico lost their electricity. About 300,000 utility customers in El Paso also were affected.,2107,500182841-500242436- 501208992-0,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (, March 20, 2000.

Monday, March 20, 2000 Generators Kept Facilities Up

By Rebecca Roybal Journal Staff Writr Though the traffic lights temporarily stopped working Saturday, back-up generators kept emergency communications, water -- and sewage -- flowing. All major city facilities -- such as the airport, the Convention Center, the jail, City Hall and the communications center on the West Side -- have diesel-fueled generators for emergencies like blackouts, said Lawrence Rael, Albuquerque's chief administrative officer. All of the generators kicked in. And so did the sewage treatment plant's backup co-generation, or "co-gen," system, which relies on methane to keep all waste water flowing smoothly -- from dish water to toilet flushes, Rael said. "So when we didn't have power, the co-gen kicked in," he said. The system could have run as long as 10 hours. If needed, compressed natural gas generators would have kept water pumping into reservoirs. "We also have an emergency contract if we need generators quickly, we can get them right away," Rael said. Throughout the blackout, city and county law officers and firefighters were flooded with calls from people reporting that the lights were out or calling to find out what was going on. "It was triple the number of calls for a Saturday night," he said

-- Martin Thompson (, March 20, 2000.

FACTS: I live in the service area of San Diego Gas & Electric. I have a AC line voltage by my workstation. Just after the rollover, the line voltage varied rapidly and erratically, dropping as low as 105 volts, and getting as high as 120 volts. I also observed at least two sudden voltage jumps, of 5 and 10 volts respectively. After a few days, this ended. Voltage did vary, but slowly and within normal limits, from 110 volts to 118 volts. By late January, voltage became "rock steady" at 115 to 117 volts. This continued until this week. There was not the slightest ripple at the Leap Year Date Bug event, at either UTC or local time --- and I was looking for it. However, starting Sunday 2000/03/19, I noticed new anomalies. The line voltage has been very high, at times running as high as 123 volts. Also, I have observed mild but visible rapid fluctuation (within a 1 to 2 volt range.) The average line voltage is running at least 119 volts or higher. INTERPRETATION: The Century Date Bug caused enough problems to require manual operation of the grid, but only for a few days. Nothing observable, worse than some surges and burned out light bulbs, resulted. The Leap Year Date Bug was a total non event. But now, there's new trouble: is the Western Interconnection grid being "juiced up" to help keep New Mexico "afloat"? There has to be some reason for this overvoltage. 123 volts AC is not within normal limits.

-- Robert Riggs (, March 22, 2000.

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