Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Power surge

Growing pains can be tough.

For an expanding city, they can mean car-clogged streets, crime or, on occasion, the application of a 50-ton Band-Aid.

That was the case for Albuquerque after power demand on the city’s rapidly expanding West Side overwhelmed and shut down a substation of Public Service Company of New Mexico last week.

To temporarily meet the power demand, PNM set up a 50-ton mobile substation – a massive tank-like machine on wheels that will pump out 25 megawatts to West Side homes and businesses.

“We’re seeing high demand at several other substations on the West Side, but this one is the one that has reached its capacity,” said PNM spokesman Don Brown. “It’s maxed out.”

The demand is the latest twist in the area’s ongoing saga of skyrocketing growth that has residents and businesses pleased but wary the West Side surge is too much, too fast.

Bringing in the backup

As heavy as a humpback whale, PNM’s mobile substation can supply enough power for about 20,000 New Mexico homes and will likely operate until next summer.

It’s the first time the mobile substation has been used to regularly supply power “for the system in a time of high need,” Brown said.

A substation lowers the voltage of electricity to make it usable by homes and businesses.

Brown said it – and PNM’s two other mobile substations – are more typically used to fill in for substations that fail or go down for repair.

PNM planned on building a new substation on the West Side – for about $2 million – by summer 2007, but surging growth in the area has pushed those plans ahead a year, Brown said.

A PNM news release puts the growth of power demand for the PNM system at 3 percent a year, but at 15 percent for the area along Coors Boulevard.

Brown said it’s a growth that PNM underestimated in its 10-year plan to supply new power. The surge’s source: new businesses and homes, he said.

“The growth is higher than expected,” he said. “We’re needing to accelerate.”

Homes, homes, homes

The West Side is growing “as fast as I think we all thought it would and could,” said Jim Folkman, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico. “The difference between doing a projection and having estimates of what is going to happen and then actually living with those developments are two different things.

“I think that’s what caught everybody off-guard. . . . Living it is far different.”

He said problems associated with rapid growth could be addressed by infrastructure investment.

“We don’t have a growth problem,” he said. “We have an infrastructure financing problem.”

Slow it down

Suzan Cole wouldn’t mind tapping the brakes on the West Side’s growth.

Cole is showroom manager for 3 Day Blinds, a window covering business at 5201 Ouray Rd. N.W. that went without power last week during PNM’s outage.

She admitted growth comes with many benefits, but “all the infrastructure has to keep up,” she said.

Yes, she said, the window-covering business is booming as new homes “have just mushroomed, it seems like overnight.”

But then there’s the traffic, the concerns about water and – particularly important in an era when some people can’t do their work without a computer – concerns about power, she said.

Cole needs her computer for many aspects of her work, and the outage interrupted a sale’s completion.

“If we don’t have access to our computers, it makes life interesting,” she said.

Her clients didn’t mind the power failure, and though they agreed to close the sale at a later date, they have yet to do so, she said.

But her ordeal hardly counts as a serious problem, she pointed out.

More serious, she said, are the people whose health depends on the power flowing.

People like Susan Crespin.

The power of power

Crespin, a diabetic, said losing power had her concerned about keeping her insulin medication cool. She stores it in the refrigerator in her West Side home.

Though the outage never approached anything close to an emergency for her, she said it made her ponder her dependence on electricity. It even compelled her to check up on a neighbor who uses an electric wheelchair.

“It’s just kind of weird when we’re so used to having power,” she said. “When this happens, it kind of boggles your mind.”

Crespin said the West Side’s growth has meant fighting her way through heavy traffic. She has noticed more crime than ever being reported on the evening news, she said. Then there’s the houses.

“Everywhere you look there’s houses,” she said. “I think the whole city of Albuquerque has grown too fast.”

SIDEBAR: EAST VS. WEST

The number of permits to build homes on Albuquerque’s West Side has grown by an average of 9.1 percent since 2002.

The East Side’s story is quite different: Home permits grew 1.9 percent from 2002 to 2003 but dropped 20.7 percent from 2003 to 2004.

Over three years, West Side permits outnumbered East Side permits by a 3-1 ratio.

Here’s a look year by year:

West Side

2004: 4,007 permits

2003: 3,699 permits

2002: 3,367 permits

East Side

2004: 1,064 permits

2003: 1,342 permits

2002: 1,124 permits

Source: Homebuilders Association of Central New Mexico

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