On the morning of December 21, 2020, a transformer explosion & fire at the Albuquerque Sunport shutdown the airport for a full day, grounding flights, stranding passengers, and causing air traffic to be diverted during the busy Christmas season.
The explosion and fire took place while personnel from Dalkia Energy Solutions – the company that Santa Fe has contracted with to upgrade its city streetlights – were working in the transformer trying to address failed LED streetlamp along the airport roadways.
An independent electrical contractor, asked to investigate and report on the potential cause of the explosion and fire, identified as their “best guess” for the cause of the explosion/fire the streetlight circuity installed, operated, and maintained by Dalkia and its predecessor Citelum.
All documents referenced in this report were provided by the City of Albuquerque in response to IPRA #21-4745.
The Airport Transformer Explosion/Fire
Shortly after 8 AM on the morning of December 21, 2021, an explosion and fire in a transformer powering Albuquerque airport facilities shutdown the airport for the entire day. The shutdown stranded passengers as outbound flights were cancelled and inbound flights were diverted at the start of the Christmas travel season.
The fire took place while Dalkia personnel, who are responsible for the roadway lighting throughout Albuquerque, including the Sunport, were working in the transformer box in an effort to address LED streetlight failures on Sunport Blvd.
Dalkia is the company that the Santa Fe has contracted with to retrofit, operate, and maintain the city streetlights.
Dalkia’s immediate response – approximately four hours after the explosion/fire and well before its cause could be determined – was to write to the City of Albuquerque and suggest that PNM and Airport Sunport Operations were to blame for the transformer explosion/fire, and the subsequent unavailability of 30+ airport area streetlights. This note was written by Mr. Kevin Kaye, Dalkia’s Director of Operations for Albuquerque, who will be responsible for Santa Fe’s streetlights.
Meanwhile, the Airport Facilities Manager brought in an independent electrical contractor – B&D Industries – to assess the damage and understand what happened. B&D’s first report, made the day after the explosion/fire (December 22, 2020) was exactly what one would expect for a first-look: identification of the different facilities that the transformer was powering and the associated loads each was fused for.
Later, at the beginning of February and following a detailed investigation, B&D reported on their “best guess” of what led to the transformer explosion/fire.
B&D’s February report identified a series of faults associated with the streetlight circuitry installed and maintained by Citelum & Dalkia. These included the use of undersized conductors – not large enough for the current they needed to carry – and other code violations made when Citelum and/or Dalkia did the LED streetlight retrofit or related maintenance.
In B&D’s estimation, the undersized wiring – part of the roadway street lighting circuit – overheated and burned-off its insulation. The undersized, overheated streetlight circuit wire was resting against a larger feeder line, creating a still larger fault, as shown in the adjacent picture.
Insulation of larger feed line burned-off where it comes in contact with undersized streetlight wiring.
Burned insulation on undersized wire in LED streetlights
Citelum & Dalkia not only used the undersized wiring in the transformer: they also used it in the streetlights themselves, where further inspection showed additional damage from overheating.
The problems found by B&D did not end with the undersized wiring installed by Citelum/Dalkia in the transformer and the streetlights. The 50 amp wiring was “protected” by a 100 amp breaker, which thus provided no protection at all for the streetlight circuit or the transformer.
Finally, B&D found code violations in the circuity installed when Citelum/Dalkia upgraded the streetlights to LEDs. The new LED streetlights are powered differently than the lights they replaced. To power the new streetlights safely required pulling a new, “neutral” conductor from the transformer to the streetlights. Rather than incurring that expense, Citelum/Dalkia misused the streetlamp “ground”, which resulted in current running through the pole itself and then, through the ground, back to the transformer. In doing so, they created a potential electrocution hazard for anyone who might come in contact with the pole.
Given what we have learned about Dalkia’s experience, the work they have done in Albuquerque, and their misrepresentations to the City of Santa Fe, it is difficult to understand the affinity that the Public Works Director Wheeler and Mayor Webber have for Dalkia.
That said, let’s keep this simple: based on the safety failures in their installation and maintenance of the Albuquerque streetlighting – from the airport transformer fire reported on here to the falling streetlights reported on previously – Dalkia does not appear to be a company that any city – including Santa Fe – should be entrusting with any part of the city’s critical safety infrastructure.
And that’s what street lighting is: critical safety infrastructure. Streetlights illuminate the roads at night for the safety of drivers and pedestrians, and for neighborhood residents out for an evening stroll. Streetlights shouldn’t be falling from their poles, or catching transformers on fire and plunging homes, businesses, or airports into darkness. Residents shouldn’t be at risk of electrocution if they lean against a lamp pole on a rainy day, or after a morning jog.
Rather than pull appropriate wiring from the transformer – as required by code for safety – Citelum/Dalkia used the lamp pole itself as part of the circuit powering the lights, creating an electrocution hazard.
What Can I do?
In a word, PERSIST!
Ask Mayor Webber why he is so wedded to Dalkia for this project.
Ask the mayor why he is not more concerned about resident safety from electrocution, or the safety implications of the airport transformer explosion/fire, or the streetlights falling from their poles in Albuquerque, or the nationwide failure of the AEL streetlights that Dalkia will be installing throughout Santa Fe.
There are many other lighting contractors working in New Mexico, and in the United States more generally. Ask the councilors why they were willing to acquiesce to the Mayor and the Public Works Director’s refusal to put the streetlight project out for bid. As Councilor Garcia asked at the February 24 Governing Body meeting, if Dalkia was really the best company to partner with then wouldn’t they come-out on top in a fair bid process?
Express you expectation that the mayor and your councilors reply to you!
Express your concerns in a letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Write the Santa Fe New Mexican News Content Editor, Ms. Cynthia Miller, and ask that the New Mexican look into and report on this multi-million dollar project carefully: they have resources and investigative experience that we don’t.
Do these things even if you already have written, or phoned, or spoken: responsible government often requires repeating yourself until you are heard.
Share this article with your friends, neighbors, and social networks (use the buttons below)! Encourage them to act. Encourage them to subscribe to this newsletter.
Drop me a line and let me know if you do any of these things. And, if you’re comfortable, share with me what you wrote, and anything you get back in return.
And, stay involved!