The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center has predicted a mild winter, contrary to the storms in past years. Last March, a severe storm dubbed Stella led the University to put in extra precautions among its staff and other University community members. The year before, another storm dubbed Jonas hit campus during intersession — hard. In addition to staff preparations, the University has other measures to mitigate the impact of a huge storm. 

Five years ago, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the coast, the University was able to maintain power in many of its buildings thanks to the Princeton Energy Plant. Although the plant’s abilities may not be needed this year, the precedent it set for when it is needed is impressive.

The Princeton Energy Plant has provided a significant part of the campus’s energy and water cooling and heating since its construction in 1996. Located at the south end of campus on Elm Drive, the energy plant is a co-generation plant: It uses excess heat from energy production to heat and cool water.

The energy plant and its engineers proved such capabilities when Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012. Though the hurricane occurred over fall break, a thousand students were still on campus, according to Thomas Nyquist, executive director of Engineering and Campus Energy. Additionally, the University maintains labs, refrigerators, and other temperature-sensitive facilities that can’t afford to lose power. The plant’s generators, in other words, are essential. 

The University’s energy department typically uses power both from the energy plant and from the power grid of Public Service Enterprise Group. During Hurricane Sandy, PSEG was only erratically able to provide power. 

According to energy plant manager Edward Borer, at one point during Hurricane Sandy, the changing voltage of the power PSEG provided caused both its power grid and the University’s to briefly shut down entirely, causing a blackout. 

Once PSEG’s power resumed, the University energy department decided to use the energy it provided to start up the University’s own energy plant. Then, it cut itself off from the PSEG supply.

“It was very unstable, so we stayed separated for quite a while,” Nyquist said. As a result, the University power plant carried the campus load for all of campus from the Monday evening of the storm through Thursday.

According to Nyquist, the campus required about 25 to 28 megawatts of energy during the storm. In context, a megawatt can power about 1000 homes. The University’s power plant can produce 15 megawatts, so the University energy department decided to cut down how much energy would need to be used. Part of this strategy meant turning off the power to entire buildings that were deemed less critical. 

“[We were] shedding entire buildings, so we took them offline, and they were non-critical buildings,” Nyquist said. “We were able to get the load down lower than the capacity of the engine.”

Although the plant’s energy duties during the storm were significantly increased, on the outside, it seemed business as usual. According to Borer, the only major difference was that the plant hired extra workers in case weather conditions prevented its usual engineers from getting to work. 

The use of power plant energy was smooth enough that many of those on campus were relatively unaffected by the weather conditions. Alzada Gatling, a Butler College dining hall staff member at the time, noted that activity on campus had seemed to continue as usual.

“The interesting thing — a lot of people did lots of Herculean things that were special or unique or different during Hurricane Sandy,” Borer said. “But really what we did was we kept running the way we normally did. That is, the actual work that went on in the power plant was the same work that happened all along — that we do every day.”

This story is part of a series about the University’s power plant.

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