Climate change stresses El Paso area power grid
As El Paso experiences a long-term heat wave with temperatures climbing above 100 degrees during an extreme drought, concerns increase about whether West Texas and parts of New Mexico could be without power at times.
El Paso and Hudspeth counties were spared from deadly blackouts following the near-gridwide failure during the 2021 winter freeze, in part because they operate on the Western Interconnection, a separate grid than nonprofit manager Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which supplies power to most of the state.
But tens of thousands of customers here have already experienced short-term power outages this month.
El Paso Electric said from June 9 to midnight June 13, 33,344 accounts — which can mean households and commercial customers — lost power in 150 outages in Texas and New Mexico. That’s about 7% of El Paso Electric’s 437,000 accounts in both states.
On Monday, ERCOT urged customers to reduce power usage by raising thermostats or not running appliances in the afternoons to keep the balance of energy supply and demand the grid needs to function.
Javier Camacho, a spokesperson for El Paso Electric, said the provider — while facing the similar challenges to balance demand and supply — is not under the same strain as ERCOT.
“At this time, we are not anticipating the same issue. We do of course always encourage our customers to conserve energy where possible so they can help save on their bill and to help reduce strain on the grid during peak demand in the day,” Camacho said. “If this circumstance were to change, we would notify our customers through a formal announcement.”
Steve Buraczyk, the senior vice president of operations for EPE, said parts of Las Cruces lost power in the early hours of Sunday morning, and the average extent of the blackouts was three hours. But he said that could mean losing power for four hours in one instance, and 30 minutes in another.
“It just further stresses the need and obligation that we have to make sure to keep our customers’ lights on, because you look at what the alternative is,” Buraczyk said. “Outages where it’s rolling blackouts, and people are going days without power.”
Camacho attributed the outages to various reasons.
“Some are due to overheated transformers, vehicle accidents, mylar — those foil balloons,” he said. “There are multiple reasons that have caused these outages across our service area.”
Camacho said there were four accidents where vehicles collided with equipment over that period. Some of the overheating can be a combination of demand for electricity — particularly with refrigerated air — and the hot temperatures, he added.
“With extended periods of triple-digit weather, the cool down time for the transformer decreases since it’s on all the time and it may not cool down overnight,” Camacho said.
Transformers are built to shut down when they overheat to prevent additional damage to the grid and to limit the areas losing power, Camacho said.
Hot summer in the city
In the city, the “heat-island effect” where concrete and asphalt trap the city’s heat can increase the daytime temperatures between 1 to 7 degrees higher than outlying areas. Some of the hottest parts of El Paso include the I-10 corridor, the Northeast triangle and the Far East side of the city.
From 2014 to 2019, 19 people died in El Paso from heat exposure, and last week a person trying to cross over the border died near a Sunland Park school from heat exposure, according to U.S. Border Patrol.
Hector Crespo, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service El Paso office, said it’s common to have temperatures above 100 degrees in June, typically the region’s hottest time of the year before the monsoon season.
“Usually, we have a few weeks during the summer that we have these heat waves and we can have more than more than one,” Crespo said.
This week’s forecast is expected to see El Paso 100 degrees or above, and possibly higher than 105 this weekend. The possibility of relief from rain is slim, with a 10% chance of possible thunderstorms this weekend.
In the past few years, the number of days above 100 degrees in El Paso has risen dramatically. In 2020, Crespo said 57 days recorded temperatures in the triple digits. Both 2019 and 2018 had a similar amount of 47 and 46 respectively. In 2017, there were only 23 days where temperatures reached 100 or above.
“In the years before that, the amount of 100-degree or above days ranges between 20 to 30,” Crespo said.
Crespo said those high temperatures, above the average core temperature for people, put vulnerable people at risk of illness and death.
“Once we reach 100 degrees, and temperatures above that, it’s easier for people to actually feel the impact from the heat and actually get heat stroke and other related illnesses,” he said.
Crespo said the spring in 2021 was cooler compared to 2020, which he said bodes well for fewer triple-digit days.
“Last year was really bad. But hopefully this year will be better,” he said.
Cover photo: One of the electric fleet parked across the street from the El Paso Electric building in Downtown. The utility experienced blackouts for 7% of customers over the weekend, partly due to the heat, but did not anticipate needing to take steps to curb customer demand, officials said. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)
Disclosure: El Paso Electric and CEO Kelly Tomblin are financial supporter of El Paso Matters. Javier Camacho is a member of the El Paso Matters board of directors. Donors and board members do not have input in El Paso Matters editorial decisions and policies.