University energy curtailments work to avoid another major blackout

Last week’s two were successful in reducing electricity consumption by twenty percent

Mark Patteson, Staff Reporter

Last week, campus was alerted of two emergency energy reductions and encouraged to reduce electricity use until the end of the day. While the reductions should not have affected regular work and study, those on campus may have noticed the dim light in hallways and the hum of emergency generators on the roofs.

The university began voluntary participation in the Emergency Demand Response Program last year to help avoid another blackout like the 2003 Northeast Blackout. The blackout struck 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada and cost the nation approximately $10 billion. The university may have lost millions in interrupted or destroyed research alone.

The blackout was caused by excess demand from overcharged air conditioners on a hot summer day, triggering a short circuit and cascading failure across the Northeast. To reduce power demand on similar days warmer than 90 degrees, grid operator PJM issues requests for participants across the region to curtail usage during peak temperatures in the afternoon.

The university’s facilities services then reduces nonessential electricity consumption and switches on the emergency generators to work alongside regular grid power. During the course of the Sept. 11 curtailment, the university reduced demand by approximately 2,200 kilowatts, a 20 percent reduction in usage.

PJM also reported an approximately 6,000 megawatt reduction in load across the whole region, a value comparable to five nuclear generators. The power curtailments do not prevent blackouts with certainty, though they do significantly reduce the risk.

While switching to emergency generators has a cost, almost $7,000 for the natural gas and diesel fuel, the campus saves a significant amount in reduced grid consumption. At the same time, the university can avoid another disastrous and costly loss of research as seen after the 2003 blackout.

While most of the curtailment can be attributed to the emergency generators, Eugene Matthews, director of facilities services, emphasized the importance of campus-wide power reductions.

“With everybody pulling together helping to reduce, it has a big impact,” Matthews said.

He estimated that if everyone on campus turned off a 10 watt device (fluorescent light fixtures draw roughly 30 W), demand could drop 150 kW.

Even this conservative estimate represents a major reduction, enough to power roughly 30 average homes.

Matthews believes that simply being conscious of the curtailment helps. “We saw a bigger reduction the second day,” he said, “Each time we have a curtailment, people think of one or two new things they don’t need.”