Monday, March 1

Blackout: The week that put Mexico’s electrical system in check


View of Ciudad Juárez, on the border with the United States, last Monday.
View of Ciudad Juárez, on the border with the United States, last Monday.JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ / Reuters

The first alarm was raised last Friday, February 12. But that same day, in the morning hours, the situation was already “dramatic.” With this qualifier, the general director of the Federal Energy Commission (CFE), Manuel Bartlett, described the beginning of the emergency that has put Mexico’s electrical system in check during the following days. Almost five million people in the north of the country were without power as of Monday. The blackout affected more than 2,500 plants in the manufacturing industry, the maquiladoras, causing losses of nearly $ 3 billion, according to industry estimates. Everything originated from a storm. The low temperatures froze the natural gas and electricity generation infrastructures on the other side of the border, in the State of Texas. The supply crisis sent prices skyrocketing and a perfect storm unleashed.

The emergency exposed the vulnerability of the electricity grid just as the energy plan promoted by the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is about to be approved, a counter-reform that privileges the CFE, a state company, over private initiative. The Government admits this structural weakness, but attributes it to an excessive dependence on the United States and appeals to energy sovereignty. This is the main conclusion of the story spun by the president, Bartlett and the main managers of the electrical industry. The reconstruction of the authorities, who tried to explain to the Mexicans what happened, is also the chronology of a management in which there has been no admission of responsibility.

Friday February 12

The National Center for Energy Control (Cenace) activates the so-called “operational control”, that is, the coordination mechanism of all the actors in the country’s electricity sector. “As measures, we identified the inventory reserves of alternative fuels to gas, a plan was made to replace these gas-fired power plants with alternative fuels, 24/7 guards were implemented in the National Transmission Network and also the power plants, and Specialist working groups were activated to monitor operating conditions ”, assured Carlos Meléndez Román, general director of the entity.

That day, the generating plants in Mexico still had, according to the CFE, a guaranteed supply of natural gas, which is the main source of electricity in the country, above 60% of the total. “The gas supply throughout the country did not present any type of cut,” the Commission reported. However, the CFE Energía subsidiary acquired, as a preventive action, two liquefied natural gas ships, which arrived at the ports of Altamira, in Tamaulipas, and Manzanillo, on the Pacific coast. “As we already knew since Friday that this could cause cuts, from that Friday CFE Energía and the General Directorate of the Federal Electricity Commission made the decision to start buying ships, liquefied natural gas,” explained the general director of the subsidiary , Miguel Reyes Hernández.

Saturday February 13

It was a decisive day in the crisis. Despite the fact that supply cuts have not yet been recorded, Cenace declares a state of emergency due to an exponential increase in prices. “An unprecedented speculation in gas prices of more than 10,000 percent begins”, in the words of Reyes Hernández. The price of natural gas for the weekend soared to more than $ 100 per unit (according to information provided by the CFE, measured in millions of BTUs, which is the British thermal unit and corresponds to less than 40 liters of LPG ). Several pipelines were already frozen and concern was mounting. Those responsible for the sector hold several meetings.

Sunday February 14

The first supply cuts begin on Sunday, which the authorities estimate at 16%. A total of 20 power plants were already affected. Some emergency actions were approved, such as the activation of support routes for the supply of fuel and transfers between plants. Inventory fluctuated between 90% and 96%. The supply interruptions were registered already at night. “That’s why at 6:00 in the morning on Monday there are already power cuts. Remember, we have a fundamental dependence on what natural gas would be ”, continued the CFE Energía director.

The official highlighted the support of Pemex, which was key throughout the weekend: “If it had not also been with the support of Petróleos Mexicanos, we would not have been able to have guaranteed storage on Sunday with other fuels so that on Monday many the plants will work ”.

Monday February 15

Temperatures and weather conditions in northern Mexico and in the State of Texas worsen and impair the operation of another five pipelines. There are 15 plants affected, the cuts in the gas supply, which caused the massive blackout, touch 50%. The parastatal company buys another two ships with liquefied gas to attend the emergency. “We already have a significant impact on the supply of natural gas […]. The most affected area was this in the North Pacific, that is where the pipelines were practically frozen, no gas was passing through, there was no way, let’s say, that we would have gas in that area, ”Reyes Hernández explained.

“At 6.19 in the morning of Monday, a first failure occurred, due to these cold fronts we had a technical failure in a transmission line, it was the first service interruption that occurred. It lasted only three minutes, ”says Carlos Meléndez, from Cenace. “And then, at 7.48, now we had a second technical failure, but now simultaneously.” The authorities explain that the restoration process began at 7.51. “At 6.30 pm we had already recovered 75% of the affected load, of all users who had lost energy, thanks to the entry into operation of more hydroelectric plants, photovoltaic plants, also based on fuel oil, diesel and natural gas that we still had at that time ”.

The head of CFE Energía rejected, for his part, the criticisms about insufficient gas storage. “Some have said why didn’t we hire coverage or did we have storage ourselves. Well, if the problem was not that, the problem is that the gas did not pass because the pipelines were frozen and that led to an unprecedented impact on generation plants, and obviously that generated peaks, let’s say demand peaks that did not have a counterweight to the supply of electricity ”.

Tuesday February 16

The situation does not improve: 13 pipelines and 15 plants affected. The cuts in the gas supply exceed 60% while the weather conditions continue to be terrible. The CFE activates another 11 plants to compensate for the losses. Throughout the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, around two in the morning, the Federal Electricity Commission had restored almost 100% of the domestic and commercial supply in the north of the country. Light returns to homes. “It represented a recovery of 99.79% and at 7:00 a greater availability of gas was reported.”

Wednesday February 17

The Governor of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott, orders to limit the export of gas out of state. Mexico once again registers cuts that affect 45% of the supply with repercussions on the distribution of electrical energy, low temperatures persist and there are 13 pipelines that still have freezing problems, while the CFE still has a dozen affected plants. Even so, according to the CEO of Cenace, at six in the afternoon the company had recovered “100% of essential services for all users” in the north and northeast of the country. “We only needed to feed a part of them, but they already had energy in their industries.” The Commission assures that the emergency is not even worse thanks to the purchase of the liquefied gas vessels and the gas stored in the Manzanillo and Altamira ports.

Responsibilities

The account of the highest officials of the electricity industry and the information provided by the CFE blame the weakness of the system on the previous six-year terms. “This episode showed us the vulnerability of the country by depending on gas from Texas. For the good of Mexico, we must regain energy sovereignty, “asks the entity, which will be the major beneficiary of López Obrador’s electricity plan. “The current energy policy seeks the rescue, strengthening and cooperation of the two state companies: Pemex and CFE”, highlights the company. “Since this emergency occurred, the workers, the technicians of the Federal Electricity Commission have been attending to the problem,” emphasized the president, who wanted to make it clear: “They will continue to support the Federal Electricity Commission and Pemex with public financing, with the budget for the two companies ”.

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