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El Paso Electric’s ‘balancing act’ of powering the Sun City

El Paso Electric (CBS4)

Most people think about electricity on two occasions: when their bill comes in and when their power goes off.

CBS4 was recently granted rare access to El Paso Electric’s nerve center. It’s where employees perform a minute-by-minute balancing act of keeping the Borderland on the grid. The utility comprises a complex system of power plants, substations and transformers that few customers probably even care to understand.

“When we talk about our load we talk about an hourly load. But load certainly deviates within that hour,” said David Hawkins, who is El Paso Electric’s vice president of system operations, resources planning and management. “It can move quite a bit and hour generation needs to respond in that amount of time. But I wouldn't think about that minute-to-minute movement if I was a customer."

On June 22, El Paso topped out at 111 degrees. It was the hottest day ever recorded in El Paso with the exception of the record shattering heatwave in the summer of 1994. On June 22, the utility pumped out 1,935 megawatts of power. The old record, set last year, was 1,892 megawatts.

Hawkins admits that this is the time of year when his worries about keeping the electricity flowing can provide for some restless nights.

"It (the biggest worry) would be a larger scale event on our system, the loss of a major transmission line during our peak summer season,” said Hawkins. “And, always weather. Whether it's hot weather, cold weather, wind or lightning.”

While many utilities across the country are holding steady in size, El Paso Electric has exploded in growth in the past two decades. In 1997, the utility served 284,000 customers. Today it has 411,000.

What many people may not realize is it’s dangerous to have too much excess power. In industry terms it’s called operating at "high frequency.’" When that happens, the power coming out of your household wall socket can be up just a fraction. But, in the long run, that is not good for anyone.

“It’s a problem for electronics, which is a problem for equipment on our electric system and so it's necessary to maintain that balance," said Hawkins.

To maintain that balance, El Paso Electric is forced to sell off any excess electricity it produces to another utility. In a worst case scenario, El Paso Electric would have to pay to have someone take the power off its grid. By law, the revenue gained by the sale of excess electricity is used to offset costs to customers rather than going as profit for shareholders.

Few people know where the utility’s nerve center is. That is by design. In the age of terrorism, power grids could be prime targets. The threat of a cyberattack is also a constant concern.

“Fortunately we have a group that's paid to stay up at night and think about those things,” said Hawkins. “But I have that same feeling that I think any of our customers would have is, 'what would happen?' But it's an industry problem and it's being thought out at the highest levels and we have a group at El Paso Electric that looks at that every day."

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