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Report Sheds Light on May 19 Power Outage

Blackout Boiled Swimming Pool Water,Endangered Research, Shut Down Offices

by D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
posted October 21, 1998

Power StructureThe failure of the campus's co-generation plant to supply electricity during the May 19, 1998, power outage contributed to more than $500,000 in physical damage and lost productivity, according to a report issued by Physical Plant-Campus Services in late August.

The plant, operated by PurEnergy, failed to carry the electrical load when campus's main power supply had to be shut down to avoid a potential explosion at the Grizzly Peak Substation.

The resulting five-hour blackout left thousands of workers idle in darkened offices. About 20 people were trapped in campus elevators; final exams were cancelled or moved outdoors; evacuation of disabled staff and students was hindered; and computer data were lost as systems crashed.

Using dry ice, research biologists scrambled to salvage heat-sensitive experiments.

Later, the backlog of data input forced the payroll department to miss a pay date for the first time in 25 years.

Despite the widespread disruption, there were no reports of injuries or accidents, according to Ron Karvosky, associate director for campus facilities and author of the report.

The circulation system for the three pools in Hearst Gym suffered $25,400 in damage when the outage locked a steam valve used to heat the pools in its wide-open position, heating the water until it boiled. The extreme heat damaged pipes, forcing the pools' closure until repairs were completed June 5.

In addition to assessing damage, the report recommends corrective actions, emphasizing the campus's agreement with PurEnergy and General Electric to operate the co-generation plant.

Physical Plant administrators met with representatives from both organizations to discuss prevention of future failures. Several actions resulted from the meeting.

"Programming errors in the control software have been corrected, in addition to other changes to the system to improve reliability," said Karvosky. "We will conduct a joint test of the system over the Thanksgiving break to ensure it is fully operational."

The University's legal office is currently negotiating with General Electric Power Supply over financial compensation for damages incurred during the outage.

However, even with the co-generation plant fully operational, the campus is still highly vulnerable to future power outages, according to the report.

"Whether the power is coming from Pacific Gas and Electric or the co-generation plant, both feed into only one substation. If there are problems with that substation, then the campus will have no power, regardless of the source," said Karvosky. "We have proposed building new feeder lines from Grizzly Peak substation and the co-generation plant to an alternative substation as a backup and are waiting for funding approval for the project."

"I think this was a wake-up call," said Johnny Torrez, director of Physical Plant. "Luckily, this outage was of short duration. We need to find a way to complete our electrical system improvements or we could be subject to a far more extended outage."


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