SAN LUIS VALLEY — Recently, large areas of Alamosa, Rio Grande and Conejos counties were plunged into darkness when Xcel Energy was forced to cut power to the area, a decision made in response to the impact the Marshall Fire in Boulder County was having on the natural gas infrastructure system that services some of the mountain communities.
Although communication from Xcel suggested that the power would only be out in a “rolling black-out schedule” with one-hour periods of no power, many homes and businesses in Alamosa experienced an outage lasting approximately three hours.
Since then, in addition to individual stories of deep concerns over family members who rely on electricity to deliver much-needed oxygen or the disorienting effect of having all the lights — including street lights — out in the neighborhoods on the south side of the city of Alamosa, the impact of the outage and discussion of preventative measures to be taken in the future appeared on the agendas of several agencies, municipalities and operations, including the city — which lost power to all but one well, the county and the San Luis Valley Regional Airport, which, to a large degree, went dark.
As was reported during the recent Airport Advisory Board meeting, the airport stayed open, including the runways, but the lack of power was clearly a challenge.
Air carriers could not land because the only lights available were the emergency lights. While the decision to land or take off was up to the pilot’s discretion, there are also obstacles that can pose significant hazard to aircraft if their locations aren’t obvious. Those locations were obscured during the power outage since the obstacle lights had gone dark.
AirMed, including its helicopter and their fixed-wing aircraft, was grounded in its hangar as the doors are electrically operated. AirMed is responsible for transport in the area, and the lack of being able to access their aircraft — let alone whether the pilots would opt to take off — prevented any transports from happening during the outage.
The airport also lost base radio communication, which they rely upon to communicate with pilots. Fortunately, there was a stop-gap measure in place. Airport personnel were able to monitor and communicate with pilots from the radios in their vehicles, but it was clearly not an optimal situation given that they had to do that for more than three hours.
Immediately after the outage, there was a notice sent out to flight crews advising them that there were no runway lights. The airport manager, recognizing that there may be emergency situations, also did not prevent any pilot who wanted to take off from doing so. But, as one individual said, “It was an unsafe situation.”
The plan for the future is to apply for either funding through grant money available via the infrastructure bill or to apply for a 2022 Homeland Security grant to purchase generators that would prevent another similar situation occurring in the future.
Three different plans are being considered, including a plan that would provide all power to the facility that would be available in the absence of an outage, a plan that would purchase enough power to provide those services that are required to safely stay open such as air navigation, base communication and others.
There is also a third plan being considered that involves the purchase of portable generators that could be moved to, for example, individual hangars to open hangar doors as doing that via existing cranks is an extremely long and arduous task.
Although the recent event was reportedly not the first time power had gone out at the airport, it was the first time that the power had been out for such an extended period of time.