SPARKS ARE FLYING between American titans eager to conquer Sonora's booming electricity market. And one of those high-voltage gladiators--namely Tucson Electric Power--has concocted a plan that both regulators and the competition warn could leave this city in the dark.
On August 17, TEP applied for federal permission to run a humongous, 345,000-volt transmission line to a substation in the Sonoran burg of Santa Ana. There it would plug into the Mexican grid through what's called a synchronous connection. In straight English, that just means the electricity could flow both ways, without a distinct break in the line.
But according to one industry insider who requested anonymity, any breakdown in Mexico's notoriously treacherous power grid could ripple north across the border: "Under TEP's proposal, if there's a significant (power) event that occurs in Mexico while TEP has that Mexican load on their system, it could domino on them."
In other words, it could douse the lights right here at home, the source says.
That's pure bunk, according to TEP spokesman Bill Norman. He says the utility could definitely block its line at the border if an emergency arose in Mexico. But when asked about particular technological safeguards, he responds that "technology won't be installed, but definitely equipment will. And that is by no means something new and unique. It's part and parcel of utility planning for decades.
"Specifically," he says, "it's the ability to install disconnect mechanisms at the border or anywhere else in the system whereby we might wish to isolate a particular load or particular demand upon the system."
Oddly enough, when the Tucson Weekly perused TEP's plan submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy for what's called a Presidential Permit (required to pump American wattage into foreign countries), it found nary a peep about Norman's aforementioned "mechanisms." So the Weekly asked DOE Senior Analyst Ellen Russell for an opinion.
Her opining was succinct. "There is nothing in their application with respect to any type of equipment that would be added to the facility for reliability purposes," she said.
Of course, TEP's competition is happier than a pig in stink to finger gaps in the plan. In this case, that competition is the Public Service Co. of New Mexico, or PNM. The company has also asked for federal permission to install lines to the border. But that's where the PNM lines would stop, and hook into a $100 million converter geared to referee the juice flowing between countries.
This is called an "asynchronous" tie. And within that nugget of techno-speak lies a high-priced disparity between the dueling proposals.
You might recall that PNM has been wading through truckloads of caca for hankering to build megawatt lines through the heart of Pima County's dwindling outback. The lines would run south from the long-troubled Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Plant near Phoenix. In the process, they would skirt the spanking new Ironwood National Monument, brush alongside Tucson Mountain Park, peek over mountaintops flanking the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and dissect a wildlife corridor next to the CAP canal in Avra Valley.
While PNM's plans have long been on the books, TEP was late to enter the fray. Since the feds seem unlikely to grant permission for duplicate systems, PNM is now trying to hatch a line-sharing deal with the Tucson utility. Whether they succeed remains a crapshoot at best, with reliability as the big sticking point. That's according to Julie Grey, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico company.
"The differences between (asynchronous and synchronous) ties have to do with how successfully you can cut off the Arizona grid or the western (U.S.) grid from the Mexican national grid if there were problems," Grey says. "We're thinking the reliability study that's required for a Presidential Permit is going to reveal whether (a synchronous connection) is going to be workable for reliability reasons, so we can maintain the stability of the whole western grid, and don't inflict any undue circumstances that could cause any failures in the U.S."
For a creepy glimpse of "undue circumstances" in this brave new interconnected world, you need only look back to 1996, when two blackouts in Portland, Ore., immediately snaked across five other states. Or a New Mexico wildfire in June that turned out the lights for roughly 40,000 TEP customers in Tucson.
And those crises exploded in our own up-to-date domestic system.
Meanwhile, the electricity deregulation touted as a cost-saving godsend by industry--and enabling TEP to compete for Mexico's market--is receiving a tough second look. The swashbuckling "reforms" allow electric companies to sell power wholesale to the highest bidder, rather than being locked into prescribed service areas. As with many de-reg schemes, this one is supposed to lower consumer prices through increased competition. But the result has been just the opposite in cities like San Diego, Calif., where rate-payers are revolting against skyrocketing bills.
Either way, the stakes are enormous for both TEP and PNM, as they scuffle for dibs on a voracious Mexican energy market growing by about 8 percent annually. This explains TEP's hell-bent drive to the border, even if it puts Arizona customers at risk.
Nor is Mexico a neutral bystander. Despite Norman's assertions that the Mexican grid could quickly be cast adrift in an emergency, such a maneuver is hardly so simple. "Things like that don't make Mexico's national electric company (Comisión Federal de Electricidad) real happy," says the anonymous source. "It doesn't necessarily endear a company to them."
Attempts to contact CFE officials for comment were unsuccessful.
For his part, Bill Norman tries to dismiss those fears--and instead plants some new ones. Regarding Mexico's concerns, "It's all one big soup," he says. "All of those electrons are not separable once inside the main grid."
Still, he wants to assure hometown TEP consumers that their power supply is safe, calling his company's disconnect finesse a given. "Technology is not physical stuff," he says. "It's head stuff, intellectual property, the brains behind ideas that are later implemented and put into physical products and processes."
Sure. And Tucsonans certainly will sleep better knowing they can plug ol' Mr. Coffee into such an abstraction come sunrise.