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John G. Edwards

Nevada May be Open to Power Outages

27 August 2003

NEVADA -- The lights didn't go out in Las Vegas Aug. 14 when the nation's worst power outage stunned the Northeast, but Nevada is still vulnerable to similar blackouts since the state generates only about half of the power it uses, the state's top utility regulator said Tuesday.

Since Nevada Power Co. still relies on the power grid to import power, it remains vulnerable to a blackout like the one that hit eight states in the Northeast and Midwest and parts of Canada earlier this month, said Don Soderberg, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission.

Soderberg and Walt Higgins, chairman and chief executive officer of Sierra Pacific Resources, discussed the potential for future power interruptions during a teleconference from Reno Tuesday.

Soderberg said Nevada Power imports 1,200 megawatts over transmission lines to meet peak demand during the summer. The electric utility has 1,700 megawatts of power generating capacity at its own plants in the Las Vegas areas and could rely on another 2,200 megawatts of power generation capacity from so-called merchant plants that are independently owned in the Las Vegas area.

A megawatt is enough electricity for about 600 homes.

If power problems erupted in the West as they did in the Northeast earlier this month, Nevada Power might need to break its electrical connections to surrounding areas. That would create a power island and prevent the sort of "cascading" problems that paralyzed the Northeast. But it wouldn't entirely prevent blackouts in Las Vegas.

Nevada Power, Sierra Pacific's subsidiary for Southern Nevada, would lose the 1,200 megawatts of power it needs to import. To ration the available electricity in Las Vegas, Nevada Power would be forced to start rolling blackouts in the valley, Soderberg said.

That would involve Nevada Power cutting electricity to one neighborhood temporarily, then restoring power in that first area but shutting it off in another area, and so on.

Imported power is crucial to Nevada Power because the utility decided during the 1990s to buy wholesale power rather than build more power plants, Soderberg said. At the time, wholesale power rates were low, but they spiked during the Western energy crisis of 2000 and 2001.

"The good news is we're building plants," Soderberg concluded.

Reliant Resources of Houston is scheduled to begin operations at the 550-megawatt Bighorn plant near Primm by November. An affiliate of Pinnacle West Capital Corp. of Phoenix and the Southern Nevada Water Authority expect to complete the 570-megawatt Silverhawk plant at the Apex Industrial Park by next summer. Nevada Power proposes to build two additional power plants in the next few years.

Sierra Pacific Power Co., another Sierra Pacific Resources subsidiary, has only about a 570 megawatt shortage that it makes up through imports during periods of peak demand, Soderberg said.

That shortage could be offset in an emergency by asking large power users to curtail consumption for a period, Soderberg said.

Higgins said electric power systems remain vulnerable to the kind of blackout that occurred in the Northeast and in the West in 1996 when they depend on long transmission lines that can fail anywhere along the way.

Higgins recalled the power outage that hit Las Vegas and other parts of the West in 1996 occurred because of three problems in Oregon.

"The system is designed to take a really big problem (without outages) so long as everything else is working," he said.

A power line in Oregon became overloaded, causing it to heat up, sag and touch a tree. A parallel transmission line nearby already was disconnected, Higgins said. That series of events led to a cascade of events that caused a blackout throughout much of the West, including Nevada, he said.

The Sierra CEO also said Nevada Power is prepared for a temporary, if not permanent, shutdown of the coal-fired Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin in 2005. Nevada Power owns a 14 percent stake in the 1,390-megawatt power plant.

Mohave cannot continue to run after that without pollution-reduction equipment required under a federal court order.

Southern California Edison, the plant operator and majority owner, doesn't have time to complete required improvements before the deadline, Higgins said. Mohave also has unresolved needs for water supplies, Higgins said.

Edison has yet to receive California regulatory authorization to spend $58 million on improvements in Mohave.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

John G. Edwards
John G. Edwards