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Arizona Wildfires Threaten Electric Grid Supplying West Texas

Smoke from the Arizona wildfire is visible from almost 200 miles away, as shown in this picture from the Albuquerque, NM region.
Photo by bobthemtnbike
Smoke from the Arizona wildfire is visible from almost 200 miles away, as shown in this picture from the Albuquerque, NM region.

The second largest wildfire in Arizona’s recorded history could cause cascading power outages that would leave El Paso and other parts of West Texas in the dark. NPR reports that the 600-square mile fire is expected to reach large electrical transmission lines by Friday.

The fire prompted Texas-based El Paso Electric to issue warnings of possible power interruptions for its customers in southern New Mexico and West Texas. The company uses two high-voltage lines to bring electricity from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix to the two states. Losing the lines would cut off about 40 percent of the utility's supply, possibly triggering the rolling blackouts among its 372,000 customers.

However, most of Texas, including Central Texas, will not see its power supply affected by the Arizona wildfire. That's because we are on a separate electrical grid, as illustrated in this map. You can see a more detailed county-by-county breakdown of the grid in this map.  

Virtually all of the state, except for part of West Texas, most of the panhandle, and a slice of East Texas is on the grid operated by the state’s electricity regulator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

ERCOT issued a press release last week saying it expects to have adequate power supplies throughout the summer but warned that extreme heat, severe drought, or other unexpected weather could change that.

“We expect to have enough generation resources to exceed peak demand by 17.5 percent this summer – surpassing the 13.75 percent threshold set by ERCOT for reliable operation of the electric grid in case of major outages or unusual temperature extremes,” said Kent Saathoff, vice president of grid operations and system planning.  “As always, if the grid experiences a prolonged period of abnormally high temperatures or higher-than-normal unplanned outages due to drought conditions or other unexpected weather event, we will be prepared to implement the progressive series of emergency procedures to preserve the security of the grid.”

In extreme circumstances, those emergency procedures could include power outages. This winter, a cold snap caused dozens of power generators to die and forced ERCOT to implement rolling power outages across the state.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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