UPDATE: Xcel natural gas service expected to be on ‘high alert’ for three days during shortage
UPDATED 8:24 p.m.
Xcel Energy expects to be on “high alert” for the next three days as temperatures plunge below zero during a natural gas shortage caused by a ruptured pipeline.
“We’re going to be on high alert for the next three days unless something changes drastically,” said Mark Nisbet, Xcel’s principal manager in North Dakota, said Sunday afternoon.
In an automated message to customers Sunday night, Xcel said its supplier - TransCanada Corp. - was returned service to one of three pipelines knocked out of service by an explosion Saturday south of Winnipeg. The one pipeline is expected to reach full capacity Monday afternoon.
Customers are asked to continue conserving gas by keeping thermostats turned down to 60 degrees and avoid using gas appliances. "The system won’t be back to normal until the natural gas is delivered to our service territory, and demand remains high due to extremely cold temperatures," a news release from Xcel said Sunday night.
So far, customers have complied with the request to turn down thermostats, and have kept the natural gas system stable even in the midst of severe winter cold, Nisbet said.
“We saw the needle move when we saw our residential customers respond,” he said. Xcel appreciates customers’ cooperation, and asks them to keep conserving to maintain stability in the system.
The worry is that gas supplies in the system could drop to a level that some furnace pilot lights would go off, and would have to be relighted, he said.
In preparation for that possibility, Xcel has brought in additional crews to be on standby to dispatch where needed, Nisbet said.
“We’re going to have a pretty sizeable crew if we have to get in there to relight customers,” he said.
TransCanada pipeline crews are trying to determine whether they can bring one of three gas lines back into service following an explosion of one of the lines Saturday south of Winnipeg.
One TransCanada pipeline ruptured and exploded, and two nearby pipelines also were shut down as a precaution and so a damage assessment can be made.
“One of them appears to be in better shape,” Nisbet said. “We’re working on that.”
Meanwhile, Xcel is getting natural gas from the area around the Twin Cities and Michigan to supply the areas in North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
Xcel natural gas customers have received automated phone calls asking them to turn their thermostats to 60 degrees to conserve fuel, unless doing so would pose a danger to their health or safety.
“We’ve gotten good response from the customers to help us do that,” but continued conservation will be required, Nisbet said.
The pipelines supply the main source of natural gas to more than 100,000 Xcel customers in eastern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
Xcel has asked almost 600 commercial customers in North Dakota and Minnesota, as well as 250 in Wisconsin and Michigan, to lower their natural gas usage. The businesses are part of the utility’s “Interruptible Gas Rates” program.
As the winter's strongest blizzard bore down on the Red River Valley, Xcel sent automated phone messages overnight Saturday to ask natural gas consumers to turn thermometers down. Blizzard Era Bell, the fifth such storm of the winter, roared into the valley Sunday with bitterly cold temperatures and wind gusts topping 50 mph.
Residential and business customers, including those in Grand Forks, East Grand Forks, Fargo and Moorhead, are urged to use electric space heaters, but avoid overloading circuits while operating them.
According to Reuters, the explosion happened near Otterburne, Manitoba, about 15 miles south of Winnipeg. No injuries were reported, but the area was evacuated as a precaution, said the National Energy Board, which oversees parts of Canada's energy industry.
"We could see these massive 200- to 300-meter high flames just shooting out of the ground and it literally sounded like a jet plane," said resident Paul Rawluk, as quoted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Reuters also reported the energy board stating the line was shut down and depressurized to contain the fire. The energy board said it would work with the federal Transportation Safety Board to determine the cause.
TransCanada spokesman Davis Sheremata said the fire was extinguished by early Saturday afternoon.
The call for limited natural gas consumption proceeds a forecast projecting overnight temps dipping down to double digits below zero in Grand Forks through Friday night. The projected high temperature is 15-below on Monday and 7-below on Tuesday.
Grand Forks Herald Editor Steve Wagner contributed to this article.