Why three San Luis Valley counties had power outages on Thursday (December 30, 2021): Boulder County fire threatened Xcel Energy’s integrated pipeline system and resulted in controlled outages — The #Alamosa Citizen #ActOnClimate

Sunrise over the Sangre de Cristos, overlooking the San Luis Valley, April 11, 2015

From The Alamosa Citizen:

WHEN fire broke out in Boulder County late Thursday morning and quickly grew into a devastating climate event that triggered the evacuation of the communities of Superior, Louisville, and parts of Broomfield, the inter-connectivity of Xcel Energy’s mountain natural gas system became evident 225 miles away in the San Luis Valley.

With fire flashing through the area Thursday morning – initial local media reports monitoring emergency scanners began reporting fire around 10:24 a.m. – Xcel Energy soon realized its natural gas infrastructure that supports the neighboring mountain communities of Summit and Grand counties was being impacted, said spokesperson Michelle Aguayo.

That threat pushed Xcel to shut down the impacted natural gas infrastructure around the fires, which resulted in a loss of pressure on Xcel’s mountain natural gas system, she said.

“This part of the system helps provide pressure and gas supply to the natural gas system leading into the mountain communities,” she said.

Xcel’s next move was to institute controlled power outages, which included Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache counties, to help manage the residential and commercial use on its natural gas system and prevent the potential of a larger natural gas outage in its mountain system.

Alamosa Citizen reached out to Xcel through Aguayo to understand why those three San Luis Valley counties were included in the controlled outage, particularly given the distance from the fires.

Integrated pipeline system

“It has less to do with Alamosa, Rio Grande, Saguache being part of the ‘mountain communities’ and more with how the natural gas system is set up,” Aguayo said. “We operate a continuous, integrated pipeline system which runs throughout the mountains from approximately Boulder, southwest to Bayfield. The critical infrastructure which was impacted by the wildfire inhibited our ability to serve those mountain communities throughout the system, which include the San Luis Valley.”

Xcel issued public notice at 6:03 p.m. on Thursday that it was going to implement controlled outages in five counties – Summit, Grand, Lake, Eagle, Saguache, Rio Grande and Alamosa – that would continue over the next six to eight hours. By 10:13 p.m. Xcel sent a second public notice that it expected to end the controlled outages overnight into Friday, which it did.

“Not having these critical facilities available put customers and communities at risk of losing natural gas service, especially as more customers used their furnaces to heat their homes as the temperatures dropped after the sunset,” Aguayo said.

The controlled outages extending into the three San Luis Valley counties helped Xcel manage natural gas usage as furnaces in homes and businesses kicked on Thursday, drawing on Xcel’s natural gas system.

“The reason electric service had to be controlled is that within those furnaces is an electric fan. Without the fan operating the furnace does not begin to heat. Thus, using controlled electric outages helped us manage the use on the natural gas system and prevent the potential of a larger natural gas outage in the mountain system,” Aguayo said.

Historically dry conditions across Colorado’s Front Range set the stage for fire to grow quickly and intensely across Boulder County. The Front Range experienced its warmest, and among its driest, period on record from June 1 to Dec. 29, according to Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center and associate professor with the Department of Atmospheric Science at CSU.

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