Summit County experiences rolling power outages Dec. 30

The outages were a controlled measure by Xcel Energy, whose system was impacted by the Boulder County wildfire

A group of people walk down Main Street in Breckenridge while wearing masks on a snowy evening March 4, 2021. The town, along with other areas of Summit County, experienced rolling blackouts Thursday controlled by Xcel Energy after the utility’s system was damaged by Boulder County’s Marshall Fire.
Liz Copan/For the Summit Daily News

Parts of Summit County experienced rolling blackouts on the night of Thursday, Dec. 30, as the Marshall Fire in Boulder County damaged Xcel Energy’s infrastructure.

According to a news release from Xcel, the wildfire impacted its system that supports Summit and Grand counties. To decrease the amount of natural gas being used by furnaces and to keep the system up and running, the company’s release said it was going to conduct periodic electric outages for customers in Summit, Grand, Lake, Eagle, Saguache, Rio Grande and Alamosa counties for six to eight hours.

Though the release and an alert from Summit County said these outages were to last about an hour, some community members experienced outages for as short as 30 minutes and as long as eight hours, said Brian Bovaird, Summit County’s director of emergency management.

This happened to Frisco resident Patrick Brown, who said he was cooking dinner at around 4 p.m. when his home suddenly lost power.

“I went outside, and most of the neighbors were going to do the same — to check and see if any of the other neighborhood buildings had lights — (and) saw that Walmart and Safeway had all their lights off and knew it was probably going to be awhile,” Brown said.

Brown’s power didn’t come back on until seven hours later, he said. Other parts of the county also experienced long outages, including in Breckenridge and Keystone. Bovaird said his home lost power for a long period of time and that it didn’t turn back on until 2 a.m.

“There really wasn’t much rhyme or reason if you looked at where the outages were,” Bovaird said.

In a release from Xcel on Friday, Dec. 31, the company said all customers in Colorado’s mountain region who were affected by Thursday evening’s controlled electric outages had service restored overnight.

“The issue was actually not the power grid; the issue was the natural gas pipelines,” Bovaird said. “So when all of those houses burned down, a lot of gas lines and feeder lines got compromised, and so obviously, there is a lot more natural gas running through those lines, so there’s almost instantly a high demand on the system for natural gas.”

Bovaird said the worst-case scenario was that gas pressure would decrease throughout the Colorado service area to the point where customers lost pressure to their homes, causing pilot lights to go out. This is a major cause for concern because when they go out, gas keeps coming out of a pilot light and could collect in a home, causing risk of an explosion. Pilot lights are used in appliances like furnaces, gas fireplaces and hot water heaters.

“The biggest hazard is if there still is enough gas pressure coming into the house but the pilot light was extinguished, then people’s houses could fill up with gas, so obviously, that’s a super dangerous situation that I think Xcel would say would be their primary goal for this,” Bovaird said.

As to why rolling blackouts were needed, Xcel’s latest release stated that the blackouts were put in place to decrease the amount of natural gas being used by furnaces so the natural gas system could continue to provide service to customers.

Moving forward, Bovaird said Xcel has indicated there will be no more rolling outages and that customers no longer need to conserve energy because the issue has to do with natural gas and not the electrical grid.

“Xcel has had time to shut off the gas to all of the compromised mains and feeders so that there’s not that initial surge that they were seeing,” Bovaird said.

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