Penn State energy test finds cuts can be made in time of crisis

mcarroll@centredaily.comJune 19, 2014 

— A heat wave grips the East Coast, and strain on the power grid means the threat of blackouts. Unexpected power outages could jeopardize sensitive research happening on the Penn State campus and have other consequences.

That’s the kind of scenario the university prepared for Thursday in an annual test of how well Penn State can reduce its electricity consumption when called upon during a national or regional power emergency.

“We do it every year for practice, so that we’re ready if we get a call that the grids are in trouble,” said Robert Cooper, director of energy and engineering for the university’s Office of Physical Plant.

“If you lower the load on the grid, if it’s about ready to go down — you know, blackout — that decreases the chance it does go down,” he said. “And that means we retain power to all our research buildings. So it’s to our benefit to try to do this.”

Last year, the university cut its power usage by almost 28 percent during the test. That number was similar to previous results, but combined with mild weather, led to the lowest measured electricity reduction ever during the testing.

This year’s test ran from 4 to 5 p.m. Michael Prinkey, senior energy program engineer at Penn State, watched the electricity usage numbers fall Thursday from his computer in the physical plant building. He said the test this year was in line with previous results.

Employees across campus were asked to contribute by doing little things, from turning off lights in an unoccupied room to unplugging a coffee pot or cellphone charger not in use.

“That goes on all over campus and it all adds up,” Cooper said.

The university takes other steps, such as sending certain buildings into reset mode — essentially the same state they are placed in overnight — which shuts off air conditioning. Buildings with classrooms kept their air conditioning, but the thermostats were reset, meaning it could have become a little warmer before the air conditioning kicked on.

“Even on a really hot day, you don’t immediately notice that the air conditioning got turned off,” Cooper said. “It takes a little while for the temperature to start to rise. We do all those things and people will notice eventually, but they won’t notice a lot.”

Those steps, and a few others, are enough to help save power grids in times of emergency, and potentially save research that might be ruined by an outage at Penn State, Cooper said.

“If you disrupt that, especially with people getting almost no notice, it eliminates their research and they have to start over again,” he said. “It’s devastating. That’s why its important to us.”

The test was part of an program in which participants pledge to reduce their electrical energy use by a specified amount during high-use periods of time, Penn State said in a statement.

If successful, the university will receive compensation proportional to the load drop, and those funds will be used to support additional energy conservation projects, the statement said.

In 2013, Penn State spent $13.4 million on electricity for the University Park campus.

Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter.

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