As East Coast utilities struggled to restore electricity in the wake of Superstorm Sandy last November, more than one sent out mobile substations — container truck-sized power-distribution facilities on wheels — to help get the lights on again as quickly as possible.
The Imperial Irrigation District would like to bring similar equipment to its service area in the Coachella Valley and Imperial County, to guard against emergency outages and promote local development — if it can figure out how to pay for it.
The district’s service area in the valley runs east from Washington Street, covering Bermuda Dunes, La Quinta, Indio, Coachella, Thermal and Mecca. IID officials are wrestling with how to modernize and upgrade the district’s generating and transmission facilities while maintaining its comparatively low rates.
“Mobile substations can be located or relocated, brought in and hooked up in 24 to 48 hours. They serve as backup in a major catastrophe,” said Mario Escalera, interim deputy energy manager for IID, speaking at a meeting of the district’s Energy Consumers Advisory Committee on Monday in La Quinta.
Following Sandy, the Long Island Power Authority sent out three mobile substations — along with 12,000 utility workers from across the country — to help restore power at substations that had been damaged by flooding, spokesman Mark Gross said Tuesday.
Even before the storm hit, the Public Service Electric and Gas Company in New Jersey, which provides power to three-quarters of the state, deployed two mobile substations to areas that had sustained heavy flooding during Hurricane Irene the year before, said Karen Johnson, a company spokeswoman.
PSE&G had used the mobile equipment to help restore power in previous emergencies. But Sandy ended up causing the most flooding at company substations closer to the coast, where tidal surges caused so much damage to generating equipment, the mobile substations could not be used, she said.
In the valley, Escalera also sees mobile substations propping up residential and economic development, by providing a temporary, smaller substation for areas where expected growth does not yet support the $5.9 million expense of building a regular substation.
“Growth doesn’t seem to follow where we want it to go,” Escalera said. “We’ve got places we think are going to grow; we need to take the leap of faith.”
Mobile substations cost about $3.5 million, and he would like to see IID buy two — one on wheels, for use in emergencies, and one mounted on skids, a platform that can be easily moved, as a temporary, smaller scale substation.
If IID were to buy a mobile substation, it could be one of the first utilities in Southern California to have one. Company officials for both Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric said neither company has the equipment.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said La Quinta Councilman Lee Osborne, who represents the city on the committee. “They need to be prepared for emergencies and help with development.”
“It would help kick start building back again,” agreed Becky Broughton of Mecca, who represents unincorporated Riverside County on the committee. “There seems to be some interest in the east valley from small developers; it would help bring down the price (of power infrastructure).”
Substations are used to step-down the intensity of power coming off the grid before it is distributed to homes or businesses. They generally include transformers as well as breaker circuits that can shut a line down if it is overheated or otherwise damaged.
IID has 26 substations across its service territory. The newest station at Jackson Street and 50th Avenue in Indio was completed in 2008, district spokeswoman Marion Champion said.
Escalera outlined a range of funding options for financing mobile substations, from looking for federal or state government grants to different approaches for cost sharing between the utility and its ratepayers.
The IID Board of Directors, considering the issue at an October meeting just two weeks before Sandy struck, favored looking for government grants, but Escalera said the storm and its aftermath raised the urgency of considering other approaches.
“Utilities of our size and growth patterns should have something like this in our fleet,” he said.
Both Broughton and Osborne said untangling the finance question will take time. If rate increases are necessary for equipment upgrades, they want them phased in gradually.
“I want to make sure they’re planning far enough in the future to maintain reliability,” Osborne said.