U electrical grid not immune to power outages, officials say

Tricia Michel

As energy regulators review the nation’s electricity grid in the wake of this month’s East Coast power outage, officials said the University is not immune to outages.

The University spends $19.8 million per year on electricity, making it Xcel Energy’s seventh-largest customer.

From Xcel, electricity travels to five University-owned and operated substations that power most of the Twin Cities campus. From the substations, the electricity goes out through underground cables and transformers to the buildings it powers.

The University, not Xcel, is responsible for upkeep of the school’s grid.

It measures its own performance using three categories: the number of power outage incidents, the number of minutes without power and a “severity index” – the total amount of time without power divided by the number of incidents.

A computer system records any power loss on campus. The system can sense outages as short as one-sixtieth of a second – comparable to a light flicker.

Frequently, people do not notice power losses because they are so short, said Jerome Malmquist, Facilities Management departmental director. Even small losses, however, can affect research projects, which is why the University tracks them.

On average, the University experiences 13 significant power losses per year, Malmquist said.

Reasons for power failures include worn-out cables and weather-related breakdowns. Often, the University cannot control the cause of outages, he said.

Most buildings have backup generators in their basements. Typically, these generators power exit signs and elevators during emergencies, but some backup generators to power entire buildings.

Summer and winter are the highest months for electricity consumption. Every year, the University hits a peak at the beginning of the fall semester, when students, faculty and staff arrive back on campus.

This year, the University hit its peak Aug. 25. At that time, enough electricity was being used to run a city, Malmquist said.

Recently, University electricity use has been rising, in part because of the construction of new buildings on campus, as well as added technology.

Malmquist said the University works closely with Xcel to make buildings more energy efficient.

The goal is to shrink the electricity bill without restricting electricity use too much, he said. In total, the University spends $1 million per year on conservation projects.

One percent of all new building costs go toward energy-efficiency efforts. The University is also working to educate students, faculty and staff about energy conservation.