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Berkeley Labs Face Power Outage Amid Wildfire Threat

The utility company PG&E has cut electricity to much of the Bay Area as a preventive measure.

Oct 9, 2019
Emily Makowski
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Classes were cancelled and lab work postponed at the University of California, Berkeley, today (October 9) as the Pacific Gas and Electric Company scheduled a power shutdown to parts of campus to guard against potential wildfires in the area. UC Berkeley’s power lines are fed by transformers in the East Bay hills, which were placed under a red flag alert for extreme wildfire danger starting Wednesday at 5 am. The campus is open with limited service, according to a press release. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a Department of Energy lab next to UC Berkeley where some of the university’s researchers have lab space, is also temporarily closing.  

The outage is a preventive measure by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) due to expected high winds that could cause wildfires by knocking down live power lines. The utility company has stated the shutdown could last for as long as five days, given that all of the area’s power lines will need to be inspected after power is restored, reports The New York Times.  

Helen Liu, a Berkeley grad student studying algae photosynthesis, says that freezers in her lab are running on backup generators, and some samples have been moved to rooms that will maintain power. Not all experiments can be moved to safety because of limited space. Some specimens in her lab and nearby plant biology labs will be kept in the dark during the outage. “The change in light and temperature can affect experiments that rely on physiology of the plant, and these experiments will have to be restarted,” she tells The Scientist in an email, adding that it could mean “quite a number of weeks lost” for some experiments.

The Berkeley Seismological Lab’s data center, which collects data from geophysical stations throughout Northern California, was designed to be prepared for power outages due to earthquakes, says operations manager Peggy Hellweg in an email to The Scientist. She says that while a generator can power the center for at least five days, not all data collection stations will be able to keep running during the outage. “Some of our stations are already no longer sending data,” she says. “Most people are working from home as long as their batteries last, maybe charging from cars or other options.” 

David Halat, a postdoc at Berkeley who uses nuclear magnetic resonance to study electrolytes for lithium ion batteries, was personally unaffected by the shutdown—but only because of timing. “Fortunately, I ran a lot of my experiments just over the last few days, including over the weekend,” he tells The Scientist. Another lab member wasn’t so lucky and had to postpone work while the team shut down its spectrometers. “None of us really anticipated that this would be happening so quickly,” Halat says. “It’s frustrating, obviously, if you can’t do the work that you were scheduled to do,” he adds.

PG&E has been criticized for the role of its equipment in wildfires across California during the past few years, including last November’s deadly Camp Fire, according to CNN. The Camp Fire started when two PG&E power lines sparked fires in windy, dry conditions. Dozens of K-12 schools across the Bay Area are also closed today, although some plan to remain open without power, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

See “College Campuses Close as Wildfires Ravage California

Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at emakowski@the-scientist.com.

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