Outdated electrical system causes delays during EWU campus power outage

By Aaron Bocook, News Writer

Just as he was arriving home last Tuesday, Feb. 18, Craig Opsal received an urgent phone call. There was a power outage on Eastern Washington University’s campus, and he had to come back to work.

Opsal is in charge of electricity and lighting for EWU facilities and planning and is one of the few people working in the switch room who can restart the power.

        “The guy who would normally be there had already left for home,” Opsal said. “And the only other guy was on vacation.”

        The power outage occurred a few minutes after 4 p.m., according to Jim Noland, the City of Cheney Light Department director. It affected the entire city of Cheney and surrounding areas.

Though power was back on within 20 minutes for most of Cheney, the Eastern campus was dark for over two hours.

        Noland said the lack of power was caused by a transmission line outage that feeds power into the city.

        Cheney purchases its power from the Bonneville Power Administration, which supplies about one-third of the electric power used in the Northwest.

        Most of the transmission into Cheney is through BPA lines, but the last segment is through Avista lines.

        “My understanding is the Avista portion of the transmission lines went out,” Noland said. “They tried to switch us onto their alternate feed, which lasted for a short amount of time, maybe a minute or two longer.”

        Thanks to some fast remote switching on behalf of Avista, power was available to both the city of Cheney and the EWU campus by 4:25 p.m. The power came back on in the rest of the city as soon as the transmission feed was fixed but was not restored on campus until after 6 p.m.

        With night falling, and the campus looking like a ghost town with no lights, Opsal came back to EWU from his home 45 minutes away.

        Cheney has two main electrical feeds citywide. According to Opsal, if you lose one feed, the electrical system at Eastern can restart itself automatically. If both feeds are lost, it requires a manual reset, which was the cause of the delay in getting power restored to campus.

        “This is a built-in safety feature,” Opsal said. “We don’t want to close the switches without knowing exactly what’s going on.”

        The electrical system at EWU runs through a complex overcurrent relay system, which needs to be precisely calculated and engineered to work properly. As the campus grows, the system grows with it, and according to Opsal, it needs to be updated.

        “It’s 12 years old, and it needs to be renewed,” Opsal said. “Stuff like this doesn’t happen a lot, but now it’s happened twice in six weeks, and I don’t know why.”

        Noland said Opsal called him the next day, and they plan to meet soon to check the settings in the campus switch room. This means the next time an outage strikes, power can be restored to campus more quickly.

        “Really, it’s about the safety of the students,” Opsal said. “The university is looking into it.”