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Power systems operators on the line at IID

June 04, 2001|By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

For most of us, electricity is the thing that makes the room light up when we flip the switch. It keeps our food from spoiling in the refrigerator and our homes cool in the summer.

Most of us don't really care where it comes from as long as we have it and it doesn't cost too much.

It's a much different story for the workers running the Imperial Irrigation District's system operating center.

The SOC is in a building so non-descript drivers zooming past hardly notice it.

What the building houses, however, is so critical to Imperial Valley's power supply the public affairs staffers at the Imperial Irrigation District don't want its location printed.

The SOC controls the power transmitted throughout its 6,500- square-mile service area from the Mexican border into the Coachella Valley in Riverside County.

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A large wall at the front of the main room in the SOC is covered with red dots and colored lines forming a map of IID's service area.

Upon closer inspection the lines represent power lines. The red spots indicate generators off-line or open breakers, places where there's a loss of power because of maintenance work or an unexpected problem.

In those cases, power is rerouted around the trouble spot along alternate lines to ensure service isn't disrupted, explained Al Juarez, superintendent of distribution operations for IID's power department.

Keeping customers "electrified" is the SOC's primary purpose.

The generation, purchasing, transmitting and distribution of power is a complex task.

Using things such as weather forecasts, past use and population projections, employees estimate how much power customers will use.

IID gets power from both its own generating units such as the hydroelectric units on IID canals and other companies with which IID has contract agreements.

IID-owned generating units produce about 500 megawatts while firm power purchases from outside sources account for nearly 300 megawatts of IID's total power.

The scheduling department handles long-range transactions but the day-to-day monitoring is done by dispatchers in this room.

Among other things, SOC dispatchers are responsible around the clock for tracking IID's power generation and transactions with other utilities, monitoring power use, buying extra power when low and cutting back when there's a surplus.

As part of a network of power utilities, IID can rely on other companies to share power in times of need.

"The advantage of having a connected grid is you can depend on each other," Juarez said.

It's better, though, to maintain just the right amount of power to fulfill customers' needs without having any left.

Juarez describes it as a balancing act.

"It's like a bucket full of water. If there's too much you spill. Too little and you steal from someone else," Juarez said.

Power use in the Imperial Valley shoots up in the summer as temperatures soar. This is a critical time for the SOC.

Last year, IID hit its peak demand of 705 megawatts July 19. Juarez anticipates a peak of 720 megawatts this year, but IID is prepared for more than that as regulations require utilities have reserves well beyond projected use.

"We do not plan any blackouts," Juarez said firmly.

While accidental power outages occur from time to time, blackouts are intentional during times when utilities face shortages.

Recently at the SOC, dispatcher Joel Fugett talked to a reporter about his job monitoring the system and matching the load to available power resources.

After 11 years with IID, Fugett's job hasn't become routine.

"Every day is a challenge," Fugett said.

"The rules are always changing. Nothing is rote. Nothing is static," he said.

Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.

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