The hardened contacts on the university’s old main switch, pictured above, burnt and melted when the breaker shorted out. Robert Boyd, the associate vice president for facilities management, said a voltage spike likely caused the outage.
Photo by Rachel Taylor/The Collegian
Electricity, like a heart to the human body, plays a vital role on the Fresno State campus. Each day, it gives students, faculty and staff the ability to conduct their activities with the convenience of power whenever they need it—but that could change.
Robert Boyd, associate vice president for facilities management, said Fresno State’s electrical infrastructure distribution system is 15 years overdue for an update, and it could be lights out for the entire university “at any moment” if it is not revamped soon.
The original system, which is more than 60 years old, was created when the campus was built in 1951 and offered 4,160 volts of electrical distribution. In the mid-60s, the campus implemented an additional 12,000-volt distribution system. Nothing has changed since.
“We’ve done too good a job, honestly, keeping it together,” Boyd said. “We’re victims of our own success because if you keep it working, then no one’s going to fund to fix it.
“As a result, we’ve made heroic measures to keep this place operational all these years, and it’s to the point that I always say I have a whole tribe of angels with me. I’m running out of angels.”
Boyd said Fresno State needs an estimated $30 million to make the update possible, but the university doesn’t have the money. He said state-sold bonds funded capital projects like this one in the past.
“In our case today, with the economy the way it is, bonds are not popular—no debt is popular—so we’ve really been sitting on our hands for a long time because no one has [$30 million],” Boyd said.
“What we’re trying to do now is to determine a better way than bonds, and that’s really been a challenge because it’s difficult with the state processes, regulations and rules.
“We can’t just go out and borrow money, because we have to make a conscious decision for you and others so that we’re not putting ourselves in a bad financial position.”
Boyd said facilities management is working directly with the California State University Chancellor’s Office to obtain the funds.
Clint Moffitt, associate vice president for financial services, said the project could be funded directly through a state appropriation, state-sold bonds or a private-public partnership.
Moffitt said the latter would involve Fresno State paying a private-sector company to carry out the work over time.
“They may operate the system, and we would buy the product that they produce, but that will require some action by the board of trustees at the system level to do that,” Moffitt said. “Even to get the private-public partnership, there’s about $25 million to $30 million that we’re probably going to have to get from the state somehow.”
Moffitt said receiving a state appropriation isn’t likely because of the demands across the state and that recently bonds haven’t been used. He said the university will explore every option until the project is secured.
“We have to upgrade the infrastructure and the delivery of utilities on campus, so we will pursue all methods until we can get this project done,” Moffitt said. “We can’t be at the risk of being unable to have facilities to provide instruction.
“If we’re without electricity or we’re without cooling, we’re without a university—we can’t instruct. We’re here to educate students, so that’s why it’s very important.
“Without the infrastructure update, we will be very hampered in providing an educational opportunity.”
If the system does fail, Moffitt said temporary portable generators could provide power to necessary buildings across the campus.
Fresno State has experienced a number of “significant events” regarding campus electricity in the past two years, but Boyd said the major power outage that occurred over the 2012 winter intercession was the most severe.
“On New Year’s Eve, we lost the main switch that actually powers up the campus, which took the 4,160 [volt system] and the 12,000 down,” Boyd said. “These parts are literally antiques.
“We have bought them off of eBay—you can’t find them.”
Boyd said the power was down for three days before it was restored and that a voltage spike likely caused the outage.
“If that happens today, we’ve got some real issues,” he said.
On Sept. 3, Boyd said the university’s central plant chiller—which cools water for air conditioning—had two of its large electric motors short out. Boyd said most of the problem has been addressed, but the chiller is still not at full power.
Boyd said the chiller’s transformer likely caused the shortage. Facilities management will run more tests to be sure.
A transformer at the shipping and receiving building also failed within the last two weeks, but facilities management was able to replace it.
Boyd cited age and fatigue as the top two causes for the majority of electrical problems on campus.
Jeff Prickett, manager of building trades and program compliance, said the system is like a car: it wears down over time, and, eventually, it needs to be replaced. Because the project is not as glamorous as others, Prickett said funding is even more difficult to acquire.
“It’s really hard to get people to donate money,” Prickett said. “They want to donate toward buildings because it’s a shiny building, and they get to put their name on it.
“This is just putting money in the ground, and they don’t see it.
“The power also impacts the ability to have new buildings—we’re at capacity.”
Boyd said Fresno State receives its power feed from two local PG&E substations, and both have reached their limit, which means no additional voltage can be distributed to the campus.
Boyd said PG&E will build a new substation near Shepherd Avenue that should be ready for use in 2015.
Boyd said the safety of his workers is another reason why the electrical infrastructure needs to be overhauled.
“It’s unpredictable, and, in its current state, it’s unreliable,” Boyd said. “You anticipate the worst happening.”
Workers are required to wear safety suits that are made to resist explosions and arc flashes—a type of electrical explosion—when working on core parts of the system.
“We shouldn’t have to be there,” Boyd said. “I strongly believe that when they come to work, they ought to be able to go home to their family. Safety is number one.”
Boyd said the project could take up to two years to complete if sufficient funds are obtained.
Right now, the system is in the preliminary design phase.
Students can help reduce stress on the system, he said, by not taking the university’s power for granted.
He said that includes turning lights off after leaving a room, unplugging unnecessary electronics, and keeping windows and doors closed when the air conditioning is on.
“Just be conscious of the fact that we need to save and preserve every last ounce of what we have and take an active role to help us,” Boyd said.