Power Plant outage puts UAF in the dark

Lakeidra Chavis and Julie Herrmann/Sun Star Reporters
Oct. 29, 2013

Steam from the Atkinson Heating and Power Plant caused by a malfunction that resulted in a campus-wide power outage at UAF. Julie Herrmann/ Sun Star

Steam from the Atkinson Heating and Power Plant caused by a malfunction that resulted in a campus-wide power outage at UAF. Julie Herrmann/ Sun Star

At approximately 9:24 this morning, the University of Alaska campus lost power due to an outage at the Ben J. Atkinson Heat and Power Plant located on Alumni Drive.

Crews were working in the new switchgear room, located across the street from the Lola Tilly Commons, according to UAF senior public officer Marmian Grimes. Although the exact cause of the incident is still developing, it resulted in the power outage and the boilers going offline.

A switchgear room has a large panel with switches and gears that are used to control and maintain electrical equipment. The current switchgear room, located inside the power plant can only produce 4,000 volts of power, despite it needing at least 12,000 volts to run efficiently.

The power plant is still not solely dependent on the new switchgear room, which was built to sustain the needed amount of voltage power.

The outage caused a large amount of steam to appear from the building. The boilers were still operating despite malfunctioning. “Fires still burn even if they’re not burning correctly,” Grimes said, “If you were out there, you could tell it was coal smoke.”

The plant has two coal-fired boilers and two oil-fired boilers. The boilers heat water, which runs through a turbine. The turbine in turn produces heat for the campus. If the power plant shuts down, the campus cannot operate. All electricity and power to operate buildings depend on the power plant.

The plant was built in 1964 and has had multiple operating problems in the last few decades, as it was only meant to last about 50 years.

Students watch smoke and steam rise from the university power plant Tuesday morning. Photo courtesy of Richard Murphy

Students watch smoke and steam rise from the university power plant Tuesday morning. Photo courtesy of Richard Murphy

Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Services Scott Bell said that the boilers were “at the end of their useful life,” in a 2011 interview.

The Lola Tilly Commons and Wood Center Food court will open at 11:30 a.m. The campus radio station, KSUA 91.5 FM, is currently down as well.

The Office of Information Technology systems, UAF Blackboard and radio station KUAC were temporarily down but are now operational, according to Twitter.

Tweets from the official UAF Twitter account said that classes should stay on schedule as much as possible.  Most classes were scheduled to start at 9:30, shortly after the outage happened, and at least two classes were cancelled as a result.

The last power outage happened in 1998, when steam from one of the boilers mixed with the electrical gear, resulting in a power outage across campus. The outage lasted 10 hours.

Updated: October 29, 2013, 1:15 p.m.

The outage began at 9 a.m. and power was restored by 10 a.m., according to the UAF Cornerstone.

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