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CFE boss Bartlett was proud of his utility's achievement. CFE boss Bartlett was proud of his utility's achievement.

‘A great feat:’ CFE chief says utility succeeded in averting ‘total disaster’

Utility has turned to burning more fuel oil and coal to make up for natural gas shortage

Reestablishing electricity generation after an interruption to the natural gas supply caused a major outage on Monday was “a great feat,” Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) chief Manuel Bartlett said Thursday, asserting that the utility’s workers averted a “total disaster.”

“It was achieved thanks to the workers; we’ve had the workers [working] with great intensity, they gave it everything they’ve got,” he told reporters at President López Obrador’s morning press conference.

“Now we have 30,000 megawatts [of power generated] from our own resources,” Bartlett said.

Almost 5 million people in northern Mexico were left without power on Monday because a cold snap in Texas froze pipes and interrupted the supply of natural gas to CFE plants. Bartlett said the state-owned company was able to use its own energy sources, including limited gas reserves, to fill the gap left by United States-sourced gas, on which Mexico is heavily reliant for electricity generation.

“We’ve been working intensely to keep the electricity system fueled. We’ve used all the instruments we have and we can say with pride that through the effort of workers across the entire country … we’ve been able to fill the void left by the gas that didn’t arrive,” he said.

“We are really very proud. The president is permanently informed of the situation because maintaining electricity means maintaining the country’s economic, social and home life,” Bartlett added.

López Obrador also praised the CFE workers, saying they have been working tirelessly since the blackout began on Monday morning.

The general director of the National Energy Control Center said that 11 CFE plants had made a “a very big effort” to compensate for the power that was lost.

“These are power plants that came on line to recover the lost load. Despite that we still have a deficit and to conserve the balance and ensure reliability … there was a need to make cuts in several states to protect … the entire [electricity] system,” Carlos Meléndez Román said.

One of the alternative energy sources used by the CFE to offset the reduced flow of natural gas was fuel oil, a byproduct of the oil refining process.

The CFE has ramped up the use of the oil to fire the thermoelectric plant in Salamanca, Guanajuato, exceeding levels agreed to with the state government.

The CFE's plant in Salamanca
The CFE’s plant in Salamanca is burning fuel oil to ramp up output.

In light of the situation, the Guanajuato government issued a statement warning residents of Salamanca and the nearby cities of Celaya and Irapuato to take precautions due to the high levels of contamination that fuel oil produces. The Environment Ministry advised people not to exercise in the open air, keep windows and doors closed and seek medical attention if they develop respiratory or other symptoms that were likely caused by the increased contamination.

The federal government also ordered the CFE to ramp up energy generation at the two coal-fired power plants in Nava, a Coahuila municipality that borders Texas.

However, only one of the plants was operating at partial capacity on Wednesday afternoon due to a lack of coal, the newspaper Reforma reported.

“There’s not enough coal, the coal region [in the northeast of Coahuila] can’t supply it in the quantity or characteristics required,” said a CFE union leader who asked not to be identified.

Arturo Arroyo, director of the mining company Minera del Norte, said that coal extraction had been suspended because the electricity supply and voltage levels required to guarantee miners’ safety were not available.

A catch-22 situation was effectively created: there wasn’t sufficient electricity supply to mine coal in order to have an energy source to generate power.

While the electricity system has almost recovered — the president urged citizens Thursday morning to limit their electricity consumption between 6 and 11 p.m. — the supply of natural gas, used to generate more than 60% of the power generated in Mexico, remains extremely limited due to the ongoing cold weather and Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s order that gas deliveries outside the state be temporarily suspended.

In Mexico, natural gas supply to major manufacturers including steelmaker Altos Hornos de México, glass producer Vitro and automaker Volkswagen has been drastically cut, undermining their capacity to operate if not stifling it completely.

For them the “great feat” of the CFE will likely be no more than cold comfort while the “great freeze” on gas supply remains.

Source: Reforma (sp), El Universal (sp) 

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