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Boston Weather: 29.0°F | A Few Clouds

Power Outage Hits MIT, Surrounding Area

By Ray C. He


A transmission line equipment failure at the Putnam Street NSTAR substation resulted in power losses across the MIT campus yesterday afternoon, said MIT Superintendent of Utilities Roger Moore.

David Branda, a customer service representative for NSTAR, the natural gas and electricity supplier for Cambridge, said that “a large portion of Cambridge was without power for about an hour and ten minutes.”

Power at MIT was off for a longer period than in Cambridge because MIT needed to gradually return to the power grid in order to avoid overloading the system, said Bernard J. Richard, manager of mechanical, electrical, and piping services at the Department of Facilities.

Many classes were cancelled following the power outage and several laboratories experienced problems with experiments.

MIT generator stops functioning

After a 115 kilovolt cable fault occurred at the Putnam substation, “the generator station at Kendall was tripped,” said Moore.

The MIT Cogeneration project, which provides most of the power to the MIT campus, is “closely connected to that substation,” he said. “They lost their source and momentarily we were pumping into the grid much higher than we could sustain,” he said.

Normally the generator at MIT will continue to power MIT even if NSTAR experiences short duration dips in voltage, but this was not the case yesterday, he said.

“We normally generate 18 megawatts of our own power,” Richard said. The plant can power 80 percent of the buildings on campus, said Peter Cooper, director of utilities. Any demand over this capacity is purchased from NSTAR, according to the cogeneration plant Web site.

The plant will need to be inspected for damage from the power failures before returning to operation, Cooper said. “We must be sure that we’re not doing more damage,” he said.

Moore said that power to MIT was restored by 4 p.m.

Emergency power not consistent

In most buildings, such as Building 10, emergency power turned on almost immediately after main power stopped. However, over fifteen minutes passed before backup generators started in buildings such as W20 and W84.

As of last night, the facilities department did not know what prevented the emergency power from turning on in these buildings, Richard said. A delay “is not normally supposed to happen,” he said.

Backup generators are in every building on campus, Richard said. “Primarily, the emergency generators power the lights so people can get out of the building,” he said. “They also support critical operations,” like delicate experiments.

Some cold rooms used for cancer research in E19 were not part of the critical systems, Richard said. These buildings had priority over buildings with backup power for experiments during efforts to restore electricity, he said.

Student Center evacuated

The Student Center was evacuated because of a reported gas leak, and Building E52 was evacuated by the MIT Police because the generators did not take over electric power.

“No building was supposed to be evacuated,” Richard said. “Buildings that were [evacuated] were instructed by the police and the fire department.”

“If there’s no light in the buildings, it’s not safe to be in there,” said MIT Police Chief John DiFava. The power outage “was lengthy and it was extensive, from Central Square up to the river,” he said.

The outage did not extend into Boston, Branda said.

The W20 evacuation, however, was caused by the smell of gas in the basement, DiFava said. “It didn’t turn out to be anything of a dangerous nature.”

Power outage affects MIT

A sense of calm settled over the Institute yesterday afternoon as students, faculty, and staff grew accustomed to life without electricity and e-mail.

Athena clusters were deserted and students gathered together in Lobby 7 and on the steps of the evacuated Student Center, shielding themselves from the rain.

Trevor T. Chang ’07 noted that life seemed “a little less stressed” yesterday at what he called the “Massachusetts Institute Without Technology.”

Libraries remained open yesterday and books were checked out manually, said Deborah L. Helman, associate head of MIT libraries.

David B. Andre in the Student Service Center said that they were accepting payments throughout the afternoon but “as far as anything that requires the system, our hands are pretty much tied.”

Dining facilities across campus were closed during the outage, resulting in long lines at the lunch trucks.

“I wandered by the student center, and it appeared to be evacuated,” said Sharon M. Prange ’07. “I don’t know where else to eat.”

The power loss also contributed to the cancellation of several afternoon lectures and recitations, including the Differential Equations (18.03) lecture.

“I couldn’t get the class to leave the classroom,” said Professor Haynes R. Miller. “First I left and then they left.”

“We waited here with amazing patience, they paid more attention to me then than when the lights are on,” said Miller.

Some students, however, were not so pleased with the power loss. “I can’t work when there’s no power,” said Michael J. Mori G. “I need my instruments.”

“I hope there’s power soon,” said George M. Eng ’06 during yesterday’s outage. “I wonder what the SIPB people are doing.”

NSTAR uncertain of failure cause

As of last night, NSTAR had not determined the cause of the transmission line failures. “We have engineers that are looking into what exactly happened,” Branda said.

In addition to losing power in the Cambridge, NSTAR’s computer systems were down yesterday, said Mike Butler, a NSTAR customer service representative.

“I don’t think that the power failure is linked to the computer systems,” Branda said.

NSTAR was conducting some power tests when the equipment failure occurred. “Cambridge was doing a scheduled test and the generator did not come back on,” said DiFava. “They were doing a test at their Putnam location and that was the start of the issue.”

A power outage of this magnitude has occurred only once in recent history. “There was one in ’97 that was a city wide failure,” Cooper said. “When that fault occurred, we were tripped off of the grid.”

Kelley Rivoire and Marissa Vogt contributed to the reporting of this story.