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Utilities blame de-icer for power outages

Critics claim solution sprayed on roadways can short-circuit equipment

By Gargi Chakrabarty
Rocky Mountain News

When the snow melts, the power goes out.

Local utility companies blame magnesium chloride – a salt used to clear icy highways and interstates – for power outages in ski areas and along highways.

Colorado's Department of Transportation challenges that conclusion.

"There is no study, no evidence, to suggest that magnesium chloride causes outages," said CDOT spokeswoman Stacey Stegman.

CDOT, which started using magnesium chloride in the late 1980s, spent roughly $3.15 million on it in 2003, up 12 percent from 2002.

Magnesium chloride is a cost-effective and environment-friendly product, Stegman said.
But some utilities aren't so sure.

They say magnesium chloride, when mixed with snow, turns to vapor and becomes airborne. The airborne salt, coupled with dust, can settle on electrical equipment such as insulators and fuses in substations along highways and interstates.

Unless equipment is cleaned or replaced, the coating of salt and dust - when it becomes wet during the next snowfall - can conduct electricity, creating a path to ground and resulting in outages.

"We have had problems in the past three to four years with magnesium chloride," said Bob Gardner, general manager of administrative service at Holy Cross Energy.

The rural electric utility serves the ski resorts of Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen, Snowmass and Sunlight.

Gardner said the utility faced outages along the I-70 corridor in Eagle Valley, especially between Vail and Eagle, during past winters.

"The only thing that may have caused the outages, we believe, is magnesium chloride," Gardner said. "We have been in this area for years, just as the highway has been, and there hasn't been any problem before the department started using magnesium chloride."

But Gardner conceded there were fewer outages this winter, which could be because of better weather or changes in how CDOT uses the chemical. Unlike previous years when CDOT sprayed highways with magnesium chloride before snowfalls, it does so now only when the flakes start falling.

Reeves Brown, president of Club 20, an alliance of 20 western Colorado counties, said trucking companies have similar concerns because magnesium chloride from the road can short the trucks' wiring harnesses.

"Two studies, one by the trucking industry and the other by the University of Idaho, are looking into the effects of magnesium chloride," Brown said.

But he argued it is better than sand or sand salts. Brown said sand causes environmental problems such as clogging creeks, and sand and other particulates contribute to air pollution.

Club 20 has scheduled a meeting in late March to discuss the issue with trucking, skiing and utility companies as well as CDOT and environmental groups.

Xcel Energy, which serves 1.2 million electric customers in Denver and neighboring areas, reported pole fires and outages at substations near highways, spokesman Steve Roalstad said.

Hart Gleason, director of projects and business development at San Miguel Power Association, said he'd heard about concerns regarding magnesium chloride from neighboring utilities.

The utility serves Telluride and Silverton ski areas.

"Fortunately, we don't have any power lines or substations physically close to a highway or an interstate," Gleason said. "But we believe there is a relationship between the use of magnesium chloride and tracking on insulators that cause outages."

Brad Gaskill, general manager of Mountain Parks Electric, which serves ski resorts near Winter Park, said he was aware of similar concerns.

But CDOT remains skeptical.

"We agree that yes, there's potential to cause outage because it is salt, and that is an electricity conductor," Stegman said. "But power outages are nothing new - there's one every time there's a storm. It is wrong to blame magnesium chloride for every outage."

The use of magnesium chloride in the past 12 years has cut snow-related accidents on I-25 and I-70 by 14 percent, while traffic volume has increased 23 percent, Stegman said.
Cost also is a factor, said Ed Fink, a regional director at CDOT.

Magnesium chloride costs 30 cents a gallon, compared with potassium acetate, calcium magnesium acetate or sugar-based de-icers that could cost from $2 to $4 per gallon.
Stegman said CDOT, responding to ski-area utilities' concerns, launched three pilot projects along I-70 last year. CDOT used sand and other products on the test sites.

Stegman said CDOT didn't hear from back from the utilities about whether they saw improvements. Gardner, of Holy Cross Energy, said he was never asked for feedback.