‘A plan that evolves and adapts’: UC Berkeley strives to maintain academic instruction amid potential environmental challenges

Lecture Hall
Allen Zeng/File

Related Posts

Faced with smoke from forest fires and days without power, UC Berkeley developed an evolving plan to maintain classes through alternative modes of instruction, allowing students to keep learning in the midst of environmental challenges.

Derived mainly from a cogeneration power plant and augmented with electricity from PG&E, campus power can be limited when the company issues a Public Safety Power Shutoff, or PSPS, in the presence of environmental conditions prone to wildfires. Striving for academic resilience in cases of limited power, the campus’s plan entails digitizing classes — a strategy currently being implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

UC Berkeley’s main source of power

At the heart of the campus’s power is its cogeneration power plant, which at maximum capacity can supply 80% of campus’s power demand, according to Associate Vice Chancellor of Facilities Services Sally McGarrahan.

The plant’s history dates back to 1987 when it was operated by a third party, which sold the power generated by the plant to PG&E, according to McGarrahan. Campus bought all of its power from PG&E until UC Berkeley took over operations of the plant in 2018.

When the plant was initially installed, it could produce all of the campus’s power, according to Norris Herrington, the plant’s manager. As the campus has grown, this is no longer a reality.

Now, the cogeneration plant’s power is supplemented by electricity bought from PG&E when campus demand exceeds the plant’s capacity, according to McGarrahan.

“The campus lungs have grown over the past 30 or 32 years, and the capacity of the cogeneration plant has not been upgraded or increased,” Herrington said. “The campus’s electrical needs have gone up significantly.”

As the plant ages, leaks may increase and more maintenance could be needed, Herrington said. Regardless of the plant’s condition, two scheduled power outages are intentionally conducted every year — typically, one in the fall and one in the spring — to complete repairs.

During these outages, campus relies solely on energy from PG&E, therefore increasing the risk of losing power completely if PG&E shuts off electricity, Herrington said in an email.

If the cogeneration plant was newer, however, the duration of the scheduled outages — about six days each — could most likely be shortened.

From campus’s perspective, the cogeneration power plant still has the potential to operate as it has been for many more years with proper maintenance, according to McGarrahan. The campus’s carbon neutrality goals, however, are not in accordance with using the plant, as it relies on natural gas.

“While the University will continue to operate and maintain the plant, it is actively studying alternative power generation technology and financing models that can help campus achieve its sustainability and carbon neutrality goals,” McGarrahan said in an email.

PG&E as a backup: Campus’s ‘preferred vision’

When the wind picks up and humidity decreases, the fire season begins and threatens parts of the state. During these conditions, active power lines are at a greater risk of collapsing and sparking fires. These circumstances prompt PG&E to intentionally shut off its power by issuing a PSPS.

Hazy Campus

Deborah Chen / File

When this happens, the cogeneration plant becomes UC Berkeley’s sole source of electricity and normal campus functions are curtailed to reduce campus power loads and keep demand within the plant’s capabilities, Herrington said.

UC Berkeley’s “preferred vision” is to provide all of its own power and rely on PG&E only as a backup — a multiyear endeavor that depends on the availability and affordability of alternative forms of technology, according to McGarrahan.

“For the average student or person on campus, (PSPS) would be seamless to them if we had more output capability of the cogeneration plant,” Herrington said.

The cost to increase the capacity of the plant so it can sustain all of campus’s electrical needs is approximately $15 million, Herrington said.

If the cogeneration power plant was able to fully sustain the campus electrically, the effects on campus power would either be minimized or completely negated when the high-voltage power lines that feed campus with energy from PG&E are shut off because of a PSPS, Herrington added.

Even if this energy security was attained, UC Berkeley would still need to maintain its connection with PG&E because of the reliability of utility over power plants, according to Herrington. Campus would be able to purchase less energy from PG&E, but this supplemental source of power would still be necessary in circumstances such as the plant’s scheduled power outages for its biannual maintenance, as well as incidental outages.

Yet, being able to power the entire campus while relying less on PG&E does not imply all normal activities will continue, according to campus Academic Senate secretary and former dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources J. Keith Gilless. If the surrounding community is affected by the PSPS, faculty, staff and students living off-campus may be unable to participate in a fully powered campus.

Having power outages while sustaining a functioning campus may also cause child care issues, elderly dependence and transportation challenges, Gilless added.

Access to the internet is not universal, meaning campus would also need to supplement students living off-campus with Wi-Fi if it intends to remain fully functional during power outages, according to Gilless.

“It’s more than just keeping the campus powered up,” Gilless added.

Left in the dark by a PSPS

Forest fires may force some Californians to imagine a new way of life: one left in the dark. Yet, UC Berkeley’s cogeneration power plant is still providing a source of light for research and some students during outages.

October witnessed the loss of four days of instruction due to a PSPS. During this time, campus prioritized sustaining power to residence halls and lighting for campus sidewalks, with power for research following as the next use campus prioritized, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore. As of press time, without PG&E supplementation, the cogeneration power plant is only able to support those priorities.

The nature of a PSPS gives campus administration limited time to notify the campus community and prepare for the expected loss of power, which leadership used during the fall to secure research, locate supplemental lighting and supply generators with diesel, according to Gilmore.

Despite the loss of power from PG&E, electricity from the cogeneration plant enabled campus to maintain power for some buildings, a capability that Gilless said is “critical” for scientific research on campus.

However, not all buildings can be powered by the plant during a PSPS.

Among the myriad of buildings on campus, some are equipped with diesel fuel-fired generators that can provide limited backup power, while others, typically older buildings, lack this power, according to Gilmore.

Many scientists on campus have “priceless research assets” but have laboratories in buildings without backup power, Gilless said.

In a state of “research purgatory,” campus doctoral student Sarah Morris was among these scientists as the PSPS last fall may have cost her laboratory $500,000 and two years of cancer research.

After working for years to find therapies to treat drug-resistant forms of cancer, Morris previously told The Daily Californian that she was notified of the PSPS with only 12 hours to save her research.

Requiring specific temperature control unavailable in her lab without power, Morris was able to move some of her samples to special generator-powered tanks on campus and transport others to UCSF, which did not lose power. Nonetheless, the samples suffered from stress, death and risk of contamination during transportation, according to Morris.

Experiencing a 45 degrees Celcius increase in temperature during the outage, 46,080 samples needed to be tested to get an accurate idea of what was lost, but with some tests costing more than the initial sample itself, Morris had to decide what was worth saving.

“This time, I drew the short straw,” Morris said in an email from October. “For future power outages—and it sounds like more outages are a real possibility—will it be you in the lurch?”

Retrofitting older buildings with backup power would be a challenge, as this would be disruptive and costly, according to McGarrahan. In times of emergency, portable generators can be used to provide power to buildings in need.

An evolving plan to maintain instruction

Following the fourth day of class cancellations in October, campus administration declared the remainder of that week “Instructional Resilience Week,” with the purpose of making missed course content available through alternative methods.

This resilience mission continued after the fall PSPS as faculty and administration started planning for how to cope with the loss of several days of instruction during future outages. This progressed into planning for the potential loss of a major portion of the semester as power outages could become “a feature of California’s next decade,” Gilless said.

Through this planning, campus learned how to preserve instructional days using remote teaching, allowing for an easier move to virtual learning during the pandemic, according to Gilless.

“Campus response to hazards like this, when you do it well, is a classic case of adaptive management where your experience is treated as an experiment and you’re constantly learning,” Gilless said.

The plan to digitize classrooms and make instruction more resilient will continue to be improved, as additional resources for video captioning and exam proctoring are needed, according to campus Academic Senate chair Oliver O’Reilly in an email.

Beyond technological adaptations to improve remote instruction, implementing the plan during a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic or throughout a PSPS requires other considerations, one of which is public safety, Gilless said.

This resilience plan involves more than changes to the curriculum. The poor air quality that sometimes accompanies wildfires means there must be a decision made about where to best shelter at-risk and general populations, Gilless said. If the campus remains open, students will need access to masks.

According to Gilless, the campus is under-invested in permanent staff who address emergencies, compared to other universities. To ensure UC Berkeley is functional and productive during future events, Gilless said more investments must be made in emergency management and staff, a process that campus has begun.

Remote learning and campus closures also present a barrier for arts classes that rely on practices and rehearsals.

Following the power outages last fall, the UC Berkeley Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, or TDPS, had to delay its rehearsal schedule, creating uncertainty for students and posing a challenge for the production team as it searched for offsite spaces for rehearsals, according to department spokesperson Ben Dillon.

“Ideally, the campus could work toward some form of energy dependence,” Dillon said. “I know that’s a very long-term project and hopefully we can be a little bit better prepared to have off-site spaces for rehearsals.”

Dillon said there is no replacement for live practice courses, namely those involving dance and acting, and added that remote learning is a “temporary substitute.”

The music department has also been facing challenges akin to those experienced by TDPS.

“While some things can be taught, the experience of preparing and performing music is radically altered and can’t be replaced in the digital format,” said department chair Cindy Cox in an email.

The period of closure and remote learning in spring 2020, however, has allowed instructors to gather online resources that will better prepare them for potential closures in the upcoming fall semester, either from the pandemic or PG&E power outages, Dillon said.

The coronavirus makes it clear that campus has to plan for disruption, Gilless said. He added that if prepared for one kind of disruption, campus is further down the path of being prepared for others.

“A plan which is set in stone is worthless,” Gilless said. “A plan that evolves and adapts means everybody is paying attention.”

Maxine Mouly is an academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.