Power outages highlight need for University of Utah's $99M utilities fix
At 2 a.m. Monday it happened again: Eighty University of Utah buildings went dark, the latest in an ongoing series of power outages on the state's flagship campus. The outages disrupt classes, imperil research and stress administrators as they struggle to keep an aging network of corroded pipes and brittle wires intact with temporary but costly fixes.
(The video accompanying this story was produced by the university of Utah's television station, KUED, to explain the infrastructure problems to Utah lawmakers, who must approve funding for upgrades.)
Crews quickly restored power to all but eight buildings around the northeast rim of Presidents Circle, which were back online by 8 a.m., but not before officials issued an advisory that the buildings would be closed all day.
"It's getting worse. Where it's getting worse is the customer hours in particular. We might have the same number of outages, but they are longer, impacting more buildings," said Cory Higgins, the U.'s director of plant operations.
Monday's outage also served as an exclamation point on the Utah Board of Regents' $256 million wish list for state appropriations to fund capital projects related to higher education. Most of the eight requests are for classroom structures to accommodate surging enrollment around the state.
But for the second year in a row, Regents have targeted an upgrade to the U.'s fragmented, dilapidated infrastructure as their biggest priority, asking for $50 million, which covers only half of the $99 million total price tag. The U. law school was out of power most of the day on Sept. 22, the day the Regents settled on the high-cost list.
The U.'s fragile infrastructure poses life safety concerns, undermines its educational mission and jeopardizes the flow of millions of dollars in research funding into Utah, according to memos to regents from William Sederburg, the state's commissioner of higher education.
"It is critical to the state," Sederburg said Monday. "How do your recruit the best and the brightest if you can't be sure the lights stay on?"
Every February for the past few years, then-U. President Michael Young appeared before legislative appropriations committees, pleading in vain for money to replace hot-water lines and electrical distributions systems that had outlived their usefulness.
During the 2011 legislative session, he reported that his campus experienced 13 major outages in the 2009-10 school year, entailing 5,000 hours of down time. In 2010-11, it was 7,000 hours.
"We have doubled our extramural research funds in the last five years," Young told lawmakers at the time, "but our capacity to do that research depends on our capacity to keep the equipment running and the labs up and running. All of that is in serious jeopardy."
When power fails, science suffers because data can be lost or damaged and lab experiments disrupted. Many U. scientists, such as geographer Rick Forster, keep samples in freezers tucked all over campus. The failures have become so common that the U. recently set up a notification system to automatically place a cellphone call to researchers when power is interrupted to their freezers.
Forster keeps 150 meters of ice core samples from Greenland glaciers in a walk-in freezer at the Kennecott building, with another 150 meters and Antarctic ice samples on the way this semester. He figures his ice samples, stored at 4 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, can survive for about 12 hours without power.
No catastrophic failure has occurred, but it might be just a matter of time. A substation fitted with 50-year-old equipment serves most of lower campus and could fail any time, according to Higgins.
"If it got overheated, there was a spike in current, or if water got in there for some reason and it shorts and you can't repair it, we would lose all of lower campus for weeks before we could restore power. Some of it is backed up by generator, but not all," Higgins said. "This matters to campus. Last year the Legislature ignored us. We can't expect better results just by wishing."
Upgrading that vulnerable substation is a critical part of the $50 million request, which covers only the first half of what the U. needs to spend to replace its electrical distribution and high-temperature water lines. The substation is one of three on campus, all outputting power at different voltages. Because system-wide sharing is not possible, a single point of failure can take down large parts of campus, officials say.
The U. gets electricity from Rocky Mountain Power at a steep discount because it maintains its own distribution system. But that system was built piecemeal decades ago and it experiences more failures than any other utility in the nation, according to U. officials. Now, 41 miles of high-voltage transmission cable, 128 switches and 62 transformers require replacement, and the whole system needs to carry the same voltage. The wire is carried in four miles of crumbling ducts that are pinching what's inside.
Monday's outage was triggered by a failed splice. Officials rerouted current to restore power to most of the affected buildings, but it took six hours to figure out how to temporarily establish a bypass for several others, including the Park, Sutton, Browning, Fletcher and Cowles buildings.
"We can't always do that, but today we got lucky," Higgins said.
The University of Utah says it needs to spend $99 million to replace 17 miles of high-temperature water lines, 41 miles of electrical cable, 128 high-voltage switches, 62 transformers and four miles of duct banks.