Los Alamos National Laboratory

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The Lab's Connection to the Northern New Mexico Community!

March 2011

Lab/LASO Quickly Respond to Natural Gas Crisis

In early February, sustained low temperatures, combined with electrical infrastructure problems in neighboring Texas, led to severe disruptions in natural gas service to large areas of New Mexico. As soon as the Lab was notified that problems were imminent, it responded.

On Wednesday, February 2, LANL was notified by the New Mexico Gas Company that, due to conditions beyond its control, natural gas supplies were going to fall short of what was needed. After preliminary internal meetings, it was determined the best way to reduce the Lab’s natural gas demand was to switch the Laboratory’s central steam heating and power generation source from natural gas to diesel fuel. This conversion took about five hours to make, but resulted in a reduction of almost 50 percent of the Lab’s natural gas use. During the crisis, this change is estimated to have made available an additional 9,196,000,000 British Thermal Units of natural gas, or enough to heat up to 15,000 homes for a day.

It quickly became apparent to everyone involved that, as natural gas supplies dwindled or were turned off, more people would switch to heating their homes with stand-alone electric heaters. That action could potentially tax the electrical power grid and lead to an additional energy failure on top of the natural gas shortage.

As a precautionary measure, the Lab, in conjunction with the Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration’s Los Alamos Site Office (LASO), identified areas of the Lab that could reduce electrical use without catastrophic consequences. Lab utility workers and managers, through past experience, were aware of which operations and buildings could handle a power reduction and, once those areas were identified, decreases were immediately implemented. One operation capable of large energy reductions was the Lab’s supercomputers, so they were powered down. Although the calculations the machines were conducting might have been interrupted, the benefit of mitigating the additional demands on electric supplies outweighed the negative computational consequences.

The Lab also voluntarily closed on Friday, February 4, to allow for further energy reductions, and employees were instructed to unplug electrical devices and reduce heating energy use as much as possible prior to the closure.

These actions meant that the Lab could divert 14 megawatts of power to the electric grid to help supply power to the electric heaters that were being switched on all over Northern New Mexico.

While all this was going on, LANL and LASO were working with the County of Los Alamos’ utilities and schools organizations and activated the Lab’s Emergency Operations Center to help coordinate additional actions. The Center also kept tribal and community leaders aware of the Lab’s actions and helped assure that crisis responders had what they required to set up shelters and supplies for those in need.

As natural gas supplies were restored, those whose energy had been disrupted required professional assistance on a house-by-house basis to regain their gas flow. To further assist in the area’s recovery, 31 of the Lab’s union pipefitters assisted the New Mexico Gas Company in its recovery efforts. The pipefitters worked almost round-the-clock—more than 1,100 hours in all—until all those who needed it had their heating and cooking sources restored.

Even now, as temperatures have risen to more seasonal levels, LANL's support continues. In addition to testimony given to the State’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee on February 16, the Lab is providing system modeling and decision analysis to help understand what happened during the crisis as well as what could be done in the future to help prevent or mitigate such occurrences. The Lab also stands ready to assist the State with future technical support as needed.

Decision Applications (D) Division's Energy and Infrastructure Analysis Group also powered up to provide advice to New Mexico Gas at the behest of Representative Ben Ray Lujan, D-New Mexico, and Loren Toole of the D Division team provided a "natural gas distribution 101" primer interview to local media.

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