House by house, technicians have begun restoring service to the 14,000 customers left without natural gas during this week’s extreme cold snap.
Southwest Gas technicians are re-starting service at homes in Rita Ranch and on the far east side between Broadway and 22nd Street.
But it is still likely to take days for all the customers to have service restored, even as weather conditions improve, Southwest Gas spokespeople said. The pressure in the El Paso Natural Gas pipeline that serves Tucson has improved after some worrying readings Thursday evening, said Southwest spokeswoman Libby Howell.
Thursday evening, pressure was even lower coming into the Tucson area than it had been Wednesday evening before the outages began, she said. But workers were able to come up with some fixes.
El Paso reported today it has above-minimum pressure in a southern New Mexico area near Alamagordo that lost service in recent days.
In addition to the Tucson outage, about 4,500 customers from southern Sierra Vista to Hereford also lost service Tuesday. Technicians began “re-lights” there at noon today, Howell said.
Southwest Gas will not inform residents when they need to be home to let utility technicians in because the timing is too unpredictable, said Bennett Burke, the director of administration for Southwest in Tucson.
However, technicians will make a second and third pass to homes where the customers aren’t home when they first visit, he said.
About 200 technicians, half from outside the Tucson market, are working on restoring service, he said.
“We’re throwing everything we can at it,” Burke said.
In a news conference at the Tucson Fire Department’s headquarters with Mayor Bob Walkup and others, Burke acknowledged that the areas where gas was turned off weren’t necessarily the areas experiencing lower pressure.
“We simply have to pick the areas where it maximizes our ability to keep the majority of customers on,” Burke said.
Southwest Gas blames low supply from the main pipeline that comes here from Texas for the shortage. Southwest had a contract for adequate supply during the cold snap, but El Paso Natural Gas, which owns the pipeline, could not fulfill it, Burke and Howell said.
“We contract to receive gas at a certain pressure, and El Paso’s system was so drained that it couldn’t deliver enough gas,” Howell said.
The Phoenix area, which is also supplied by the El Paso pipeline, did not suffer any outages. There is an additional pipeline serving Phoenix, which comes down from northern Arizona, Howell said.
Also, El Paso’s pipeline can receive additional supply from points to the west of Phoenix and move them back east into the metro area, El Paso spokesman Richard Wheatley said via e-mail. A similar system is available in the Tucson area, he said.
Only nine local residents took advantage of the two shelters set up Thursday, at the Udall Center and Pantano Christian Church, Walkup said. But he said he would rather err on the side of over-responding than under-responding.
The Udall shelter will remain open tonight, he said.
Southwest turned off the gas first to about 7,000 homes including the Rita Ranch area this morning, Burke said. They expect to turn off the rest of the 7,000 homes today.
But the second stage is more complicated, Burke said, requiring technicians to enter customers’ homes and spend 10 or 15 minutes restoring service.
Walkup pronounced himself “satisfied” with the response of Southwest Gas to the situation.
“I’m very pleased with how we all mobilized,” he said.
The Arizona Corporation Commission has received complaints about the outage and is monitoring the situation, spokeswoman Rebecca Wilder said.
A confluence of problems led to the shortage, said Nancy LaPlaca, a spokeswoman for Paul Newman, the only commission member from Southern Arizona.
A freeze in Texas caused natural gas wells to shut down, she said, while blackouts were hitting Texas and demand was surging due to the cold.
The gas outages highlight the benefits of “distributed generation,” including home solar power units, she said.