How a Power Failure Meant a Fiery Night at a Houston Refinery

September 02, 2016

By Steve Anderson - Contributing Writer

Those in Houston, Texas got a late-night surprise across the sky as towers of flame shot into the sky from the LyondellBasell Houston Refinery just recently, and the cause is something surprisingly mundane. The fiery show was caused by no less than a simple power outage, and the consequences explain to us clearly why having backup power systems in place is so important.

The Houston Fire Department elaborated, noting that the refinery had seen a complete power outage impacting the entire refinery system. Considering that this is a building that essentially turns crude oil into several useful and highly flammable forms—this refinery is specifically equipped to handle crude with a high sulfur content—the risk of fire and / or explosions is fairly substantial. The refinery, at last report, processes 268,000 barrels of crude oil a day, converting them into such necessary and dangerous products as reformulated gasoline, low-sulfur diesel fuel, lubricants, jet fuel, and benzene, just to name a few.

Such a building, therefore, must have extensive safety practices in place. One of those systems activated what's known as a “burn-off” to get rid of the accumulated fumes in the system. With no power, the burn-off went into effect, and thus generated the huge flames at the top of smoke stacks that could be seen for miles.

Some loud noises associated with the procedure prompted locals to think explosions were taking place, but these were simply part of the backup safety system processes. The good news is that no injuries occurred, and power was restored in about two hours, so we shouldn't even see a bump in already-low gas prices as a result of this.

While most of us don't handle large quantities of benzene on a regular basis, this fiery lesson demonstrates plainly the value of backup systems for power. Whether it's something as simple as an uninterruptable power supply for those last couple of minutes to save work and shut down a system or as complex as a large generator, being able to supply emergency power when grid power isn't on hand can be a huge point. I'll offer a personal example; yesterday, I had a power outage. A clear day, blue sky, and the power just went off right in the middle of the day. It was off for about 30 minutes or so, just long enough for me to notice that something had gone wrong and that I'd lost power. Since I do most of my work on a laptop with an internal battery, I had worked through about the first half of the power outage, and had just started considering my next option when it came back on.

Let the lessons of a Houston refinery and my own experience be a lesson to you; backup power systems, no matter what form they take, can be vital to ongoing operations.

Edited by Alicia Young

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