PRC plans to open official inquiry into San Juan cooling tower collapse

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission plans to open an investigation into a cooling tower collapse that happened in late June at the San Juan Generating Station.

“We had a major baseload component of our power system go down and we were in the dark about it,” said Commission Chairman Stephen Fischmann, who added that an investigation will create a formal record.

This unanimous decision came after Public Service Company of New Mexico, the majority owner and operator of the plant, presented information to the commission during a Wednesday meeting. It was the first time that PNM officials spoke publicly about the incident.

Mark Fenton, the executive director of regulatory policy for PNM, said the company was concerned that market prices could increase if it became widely known that the power plant’s unit was not supplying electricity to customers. For that reason, Fenton said, PNM was cautious about releasing information.

Meanwhile, PNM officials say unit one will be back online in the next few weeks..

A rental cooling tower will be installed later this month, according to Ron Darnell, PNM’s senior vice president of public policy.

Commissioner Cynthia Hall criticized PNM for not letting commissioners know about the collapse. Hall said she learned about the collapse from news stories, though Fenton said PNM did inform a member of the PRC staff.

Commissioner Joseph Maestas said there was a lot of speculation from constituents concerned that there would not be enough power to meet demand during hot temperatures and he agreed with Hall that PNM should have notified the commissioners.

The cause of the June 30 collapse remains unknown. The cooling tower is the sole wooden structure at the power plant and is located a substantial distance from where employees typically work, Darnell said. No one was injured during the incident.

“I’m very thankful that there were no injuries. I think that that is the most…important outcome here,” Maestas said.

The tower had been periodically inspected and repaired when needed. Darnell said the last repair occurred in 2020, less than a year ago.

“None of our inspections showed any warning signs of potential failure,” he said.

The afternoon prior to the collapse, the plant manager was at the cooling tower with engineers and they did not see any warning signs, Darnell said.

Unit four was also down at the time for a planned outage and Darnell said crews used that opportunity to inspect the unit four cooling tower, which has been deemed safe. He said the inspectors did make a few suggestions for unit four and PNM addressed those before bringing unit four back online.

“In a way it was fortunate that unit four was down for a planned outage,” he said.

He said unit four was brought back online this week.

PNM has been able to provide power to customers even without the San Juan Generating Station’s unit one, including over the course of a weekend when the state experienced a heat wave.

PNM plans to end its operations at the power plant next year. Until then, Darnell said it remains an important baseload resource. Solar arrays and battery storage facilities are being built to replace the power that PNM currently receives from the San Juan Generating Station.

This article was originally posted on PRC plans to open official inquiry into San Juan cooling tower collapse

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