Xcel looks to put halt to costly blackouts

The eight men dressed head to toe in protective suits and armed with paint guns were in the middle of spraying a white base coat on the Gulfstream jet when the power went out.

It was pitch-black inside the West Star Aviation hangar, so much so that the employees, working a matter of a few feet apart from each other, couldn’t see one another. The emergency power kicked on, and the workers retrieved and trained their flashlights on the jet.

“We see this airplane and we said, ‘Oh my God,’ ” recalled Rick Brainard, West Star vice president of sales.

The abrupt outage rattled the air circulation fans and knocked a fine layer of dust off the ceiling and onto the fresh $95,000 paint job. The men had to strip the paint off the plane and start over. The debacle cost West Star $35,000.

Time and again over the last several years, power outages along Horizon Drive have sabotaged businesses there, delaying planes at Grand Junction Regional Airport, robbing restaurants of customers and prompting frustrated hotel guests to cancel their reservations. The outages often last hours. In at least one case, the power flicked off and on several times over two days.

But after much frustration over losing business and replacing expensive equipment, there appears to be light at the end of the power cable for Xcel Energy customers on one of Grand Junction’s most heavily concentrated commercial corridors.

By the end of the year, the power company will complete a $7 million replacement of the underground electrical system. The four-year project is the most comprehensive and expensive local upgrade in recent memory.

“The folks on Horizon Drive have been through tough times. They’ve had a lot of outages. But now they’re going to have one of the most reliable systems on the Western Slope,” Xcel spokesman Fred Eggleston said.

The much-cursed trouble can be traced back to the power cables themselves and the soil in which they’re buried.

The system on Horizon Drive was one of the first in the Grand Valley to be sunk underground in 1980, according to Eggleston. Back then, the cables were placed directly in the acidic soil, which over time has eaten away at the copper lines and caused malfunctions.

The new cables being installed are triple the size of the old ones, allowing them to carry more power. They have a thick polymer rubber exterior, and they’re being placed inside 6-inch conduits, making it easier for crews to access and repair them. The new system has a 50-year life expectancy.

The Horizon Drive feeder system serves about 1,000 meters, although that number doesn’t illustrate how many people are affected when the lights go out. Those meters hook into major facilities, including Grand Junction Regional Airport and all the businesses located out there and multi-story office buildings and hotels — venues of commerce that serve thousands of people each day and drive Mesa County’s economic engine. When the power is shut down there, the effects spread further than when the clocks begin blinking in a housing subdivision.

“They are significant customers. We realize that,” Eggleston said.

There was only one system-wide outage between 1999 and 2004. Since 2005, there have been 13, as new commercial growth plugged into the system and the soil has had more time to take its toll.

For Lynn Sorley, general manager of the Clarion Inn, 755 Horizon Drive, the outages have happened frequently enough that she has lined the shelves of her office with lanterns and flashlights.

Without power, customers have sought refunds. Those who stick around run the risk of their safety and security being compromised, she said. The batteries that fuel the emergency lights last only so long, leaving parking lots, stairwells and hallways dim or totally dark.

Sorley said she has had trouble getting information from Xcel when the lights go out.

Calls are routed to an 800 number in Denver and met by a recording.

“It’s very frustrating when people are saying, ‘How long is this going to be out?’ and we don’t know what caused it, and we don’t know when it’s coming back,” Sorley said.

Soon, though, that should be one less question her front desk staff fields.

Although one of the outages last year proved to be costly for West Star, the jet painting mishap helped Eggleston gain the political clout he needed to persuade Xcel corporate executives to allocate extra money to the project.

“We’re very excited to see that problem go away because it’s a nuisance by all means and, in some instances, costly,” Brainard said.


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