Gracias! Mexico Feeding Power to Taxed Texas Grid

By ANGELA K. BROWN
|  Thursday, Feb 3, 2011  |  Updated 6:15 PM CDT
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The latest forecast from NBCDFW.com.

Jennifer Lopez

The latest forecast from NBCDFW.com.

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A high power demand in the wake of a massive ice storm caused rolling outages for more than eight hours Wednesday across most of Texas, resulting in signal-less intersections, coffee houses with no morning java and some people stuck in elevators.

The temporary outages started about 5:30 a.m. and ended in the afternoon, but "there is a strong possibility that they will be required again this evening or tomorrow, depending on how quickly the disabled generation units can be returned to service," the chief operator of Texas' power grid said in a release.

Because of the problems, Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission agreed to transmit 280 megawatts of electricity to Texas between Wednesday and Thursday night. The electricity will be transmitted at interconnection points in Nuevo Laredo -- across the border from Laredo, Texas -- and Piedras Negras, which sits opposite of Eagle Pass, Texas, the commission said in a statement.

By Thursday, however, Mexico was struggling with its own cold weather and could no longer help.

The outages lasted from 10 to 45 minutes or longer in each affected neighborhood and did not include hospitals and nursing homes in Texas. Temperatures were in the teens and 20s across much of the state.

Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, home of Sunday's Super Bowl, also was exempt from the outages, said Jeamy Molina, a spokeswoman for Oncor, which supplies electricity to 7 million consumers.

Earlier Wednesday, Gov. Rick Perry urged businesses and residents to conserve electricity during the "unprecedented demand on the state's energy grid." The massive storm more than 2,000 miles long hit Texas early Tuesday and barreled through the nation's midsection on its way to the Northeast, leaving vast swaths from Chicago to New York paralyzed by snow and ice, stranding hundreds of motorists and shuttering airports and schools.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday evening that cold weather had knocked out about 50 of the 550 power plants in Texas, totaling 8,000 megawatts, and there also was an increase in demand.

"Lack of adequate winterization and preparation appear to be a major cause of the outages," he said in a statement. "This is unusually cold weather for Texas, but we obviously need to ensure that we are adequately prepared. That's why we will continue to work with state agencies and energy providers to find out where problems occurred and how to prevent them in the future."

Dewhurst previously said the demand placed on the Texas grid was nowhere near peak capacity, and the rolling outages were caused when two coal-fired power plants had to shut down because of burst water pipes.

Hotels in downtown Dallas, where many fans are flocking in the run-up to the big game, were not affected by the controlled outages because they have a special hookup to the power grid, said Frank Librio, a spokesman for the city of Dallas.

The hotels where the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers are staying have backup generators, said Larry Auth, a spokesman for Omni hotels. The NFL said some hotels the league is using had "brief but expected" outages that caused no problems.

But that wasn't the case at other hotels in North Texas. Bill Bunce, general manager of the Sheraton Dallas North, said some guests panicked when the electricity went out, while others took the loss of their Internet connections, lights and heat in stride.

"We go into 'all hands on deck' mode and grab our flashlights," he said, adding that the situation could have been worse. "If it was during the Super Bowl with a full house (expected Thursday), it wouldn't have been pretty."

James Howland, 50, said the power went off in his Corsicana neighborhood for about 20 minutes at time every hour starting about 8 a.m. Wednesday. It was more of a nuisance than anything, said Howland, who is disabled and spends most of his time reading and online at his home about 50 miles southeast of Dallas.

"It's colder than all get-out," said Howland, wrapped in extra blankets.

Some schools in Houston, the state's largest school district with more than 200,000 students, briefly were in the dark Wednesday morning. Classes were not canceled, said school district spokesman Norm Uhl.

Elizabeth Tosh got stuck in an elevator in a Houston office building for 45 minutes during the second outage of the day Wednesday. She and a co-worker spent about two minutes in the dark before the emergency lights kicked on, Tosh said. Then they began pressing buttons and emergency button for about 30 minutes until they managed to contact the building personnel.

Tosh said she and her colleague laughed and joked and were glad they had snacks with them. But after the elevator finally started moving and the pair exited into the lobby, she decided not to join him as he started walking toward another elevator.

"I'm not riding with you," she quipped.

"Smart choice," he answered.

Bianca Aviles, who works at a Starbucks in Houston, said she could only sell the coffee that was already made Wednesday morning because power outages prevented her from brewing more. She also had to do all transactions manually because the cash registers would not work.

The decision was announced early Wednesday that utilities operating as part of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, were required to start the outages to compensate for shortages caused by the high power demand. The outages affect the state's largest cities, including Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, Corpus Christi, Abilene and the Rio Grande Valley -- more than three-fourths of the state.

One of the failed coal plants Dewhurst mentioned, Oak Grove, is a 1,600-megawatt facility that is among the largest in Texas and began operations only in the last few years. Frigid temperatures overnight caused some portion of the pipeline to fail but the company is still trying to identify the damage, said Allan Koenig, a spokesman for Luminant Generation Co., which operates the plant.

Although outside the ERCOT grid, the El Paso area experienced its own rolling outages as it had record-low single-digit temperatures and snowfall. The high-profile trial of a Cuba-born former CIA operative accused of lying to U.S. authorities during an immigration hearing was suspended Wednesday because the Texas courthouse closed due to snow.

In addition to the rolling outages, thousands of Texans remained without power in the wake of the ice storm, and hundreds of schools were closed, mostly in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. About 150 flights were canceled Wednesday at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, said David Magana, an airport spokesman.

Associated Press writers Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Linda Stewart Ball, Schuyler Dixon, Diana Heidgerd and Danny Robbins in Dallas, Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston, Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Paul Weber in San Antonio and Will Weissert in El Paso contributed to this report.

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