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Xcel in major push to prevent further F-M power outages

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Xcel Energy plans to increase its pace of replacing underground power lines and is inspecting aboveground equipment and lines with infrared cameras in an effort to stem the spate of power outages that have hit the Fargo-Moorhead area in the past three weeks.

Workers were busy replacing 3,500 feet of underground feeder line along First Avenue North in Moorhead on Tuesday. The line carries power to downtown Fargo and east to several nearby Minnesota communities along the Highway 10 corridor, including Dilworth and Glyndon.

The cable, which is about 40 years old, had breakdowns that caused two of the seven recent outages, Xcel spokesman Mark Nisbet said.

Tuesday morning, about 1,332 Xcel customers lost power in northwest Fargo due to a fire on a power pole at First Avenue and 27th Street North. In less than a minute, power was restored to 1,100 customers thanks to circuits that automatically re-route power during outages, Nisbet said. The final 62 customers had power restored after being without electricity for about two hours and 33 minutes, he said.

The power cable being replaced in Moorhead is being snaked underground by a directional drilling machine, which causes fewer disruptions because long trenches don't have to be dug. The machine can snake a line 800 feet at a time, Nisbet said.

"I think we got pretty good use out of this cable," said Brad Sylliaasen, Xcel's director of design and construction for North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

Sylliaasen said the new cable should be in place by the end of this week and fully energized by the start of next week.

Xcel is considering the replacement of underground cable of the same type and age in North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota as a proactive way of heading off potential outages, Nisbet said.

A large-scale replacement of aging underground power cables will mean Xcel may have to request rate hikes in the long term if the cost is prohibitive, Nisbet said.

In addition to determining which underground cables should be replaced, Xcel is re-inspecting aboveground power lines, substations and other power transmission equipment, Nisbet and Sylliaasen said.

Sylliaasen said Xcel employees use handheld forward looking infrared, or "FLIR," cameras to determine the "temperature profile" or relative heat put off by power equipment to determine if it is functioning normally, or if it is failing or defective.

Normally, those inspections are done every four years, and the Fargo-Moorhead area was inspected in February and March. But due to the recent outages, Sylliaasen said the inspections are being done again over the next several weeks.

Each of the seven recent metro area outages has been scrutinized to be sure the problems aren't systemic, he said.

Other than the two power outages linked to faults in the underground cable now being replaced, there is no commonality among the outages, Sylliaasen said.

One outage was caused when a tree limb broke and downed a power line. Another outage was blamed on an animal getting into a field breaker, but no trace of the offending critter has been found, Sylliaasen said.

A lightning strike caused another outage, and there was Tuesday's pole fire.

The cause of an outage late last week has not been determined yet, Sylliaasen said.

Fixing problems would be easier if they had a common cause, he said. "That's what can be frustrating. It's a whole gamut of things."

The leading cause of power outages for Xcel are faults in underground power distribution lines, followed by trees and other vegetation affecting power lines, Sylliaasen said.

Xcel said it is moving up its tree-trimming schedule to prevent damage to power lines. The company is also installing new technology on main-line circuits to quickly reroute power when faults occur. That will limit the number of customers affected by power outages.

Xcel said it has invested about $5 million in the last three years to improve service in North Dakota.