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Gulf Prepares for Possible Blackouts

A Greenpeace activist walks on an oil-covered beach along the Gulf of Mexico on May 20, 2010 near Venice, Louisiana. Although BP says that it is capturing more of the massive oil leak, thousands of barrels continue gushing into the Gulf south of the Louisiana coast.
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A Greenpeace activist walks on an oil-covered beach along the Gulf of Mexico on May 20, 2010 near Venice, Louisiana. Although BP says that it is capturing more of the massive oil leak, thousands of barrels continue gushing into the Gulf south of the Louisiana coast.

Blackouts are one more possible problem related to the BP oil spill that residents of the Gulf of Mexico region may have to negotiate.

If that happens, the power outages have the potential to impact homes and businesses from western Louisiana to eastern Florida.

“We began to take note of this [problems leading to blackouts] about a week after the incident [the spill] occurred,” said Vincent Dolan, president & CEO of Progress Energy .

Other power companies have been taking precautionary measures, too.

To prevent oil from getting into the plants through intake canals, companies have installed booms in the rivers leading from the gulf to the canals. To avert contamination from oil-soiled ship hulls, which deliver fuel such as coal to power the plants, the companies are stocking up on the fuel.

“It [oil in the system] can actually damage the cooling towers, and it could ultimately cause one of our plants to go offline,” said Sandy Sims,Gulf Powermanager of public affairs, who spoke to CNBC from the Crist Generating Plant in Pensacola.

The Crist facility, 14 miles from the gulf, is a coal-fired plant that uses water to make steam that moves the turbines to generate electricity.

Sims says that the distance makes it unlikely that the plant will shut down. But others are more vulnerable. The North American Reliability Corporation owns 14 units that draw water directly from the gulf.

The Progress corporation has boomed intake canals at four of its facilities on Florida’s west coast—including those at Crystal River, Anclote and Tarpon Springs—and skimmers are standing by.

It’s a plan Dolan sees as preventing shutdowns. Even in the worst-case scenario, he still doesn’t expect the oil spill will impact his clients with regard to electrical services. “I think we would have sufficient reserve capacity where we would transfer power with other utilities.”

Sims added that the company has another plan, so that the gulf catastrophe doesn’t affect its customers. It will make a claim for money from the $20 billion compensation fund, set up by BP last week, rather than impose a financial burden on customers.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard has procedures in place to deal with any vessels with oil-soiled hulls destined for one of the canals. It has cleaning stations 7 to 12 miles offshore of the coast’s five deep-water ports.

"If the inspection shows what we call ‘considerate bath-tub ring’ or contamination on the hull," said Lt. Commander Robert Hess, "that vessel will get high-pressure saltwater wash down of both sides of the hull, forward and aft."

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