Students who were late to early morning classes last Wednesday had a good excuse for their tardiness: alarm clocks across campus were silenced by a power outage that occurred shortly before 7:30 a.m., the result of equipment failure at an electrical substation on Main St.
The substation, run by National Grid, is a central distribution point for the approximately 13,800 volts of electricity that power much of Williamstown. It also directs power to the College heating plant, where it is then distributed across campus.
The problem at the substation stemmed from a crack in the insulation used as protection from the high voltage. Water from the recent days of rain entered the crack, causing some of the breakers to blow. Both the fire and police departments were contacted, and the former responded to a scene at which there were “sparks shooting twenty feet up in the air,” according to Don Clark, the College utilities program manager.
The outage, which affected the majority of the southern Williamstown as well as the entire campus, was expected to last as long as three hours, but power was restored within thirty minutes, as National Grid was able to switch around the short circuit.
Despite the outage, generators had started up at certain locations around campus, maintaining power in buildings necessary for immediate operations.
Apart from a two-hour power outage this past summer and a six-hour outage in 1986 due to snowstorm, there have been no major power outages at Williams in recent memory. However, power is often lost for short periods of time as often as twice a year, for reasons ranging from ice storms and fallen trees, to events like Wednesday’s substation malfunction.
For this reason several protocol plans exist, detailing the responsibilities of different departments in the event of emergency situations. If a long term power outage were to occur, buildings, including the heating plant, the Paresky Center, Morley science labs, Hopkins Hall and the facilities building would be powered by generators, allowing basic operations to continue.
In the future, it may be possible for the College to avoid outages caused by situations like Wednesday’s by generating its own energy. “We conducted a feasibility study about three years ago to see if we were able to generate electricity ourselves,” Clark said. “With different choices for fuel and energy, it could be more sustainable.”
The results of the study were inconclusive and the plan was put on hold, but Clark noted that a College-run and owned system of generating an independent power supply remains a possibility for future research, and may be a feasible and notable step for the future.