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Jay Perman. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

UMB warns of potentially ‘catastrophic’ power shortage

The University of Maryland, Baltimore needs more power.

The campus’s existing electrical infrastructure is so old that replacement parts aren’t made anymore, and a power failure could jeopardize millions of dollars in research.

So the university is proposing an $82 million overhaul to include the construction of a new substation, the rebuilding of an old one and the replacement of miles of electrical cable.

Right now, the university’s power is fed from a Baltimore Gas and Electric facility on Greene Street to the university’s lone substation, located in a sub-basement of the south hospital building, said Robert Rowan, associate vice president for facilities and operations.

But that substation is about 50 years old, and much of the cable that distributes the electricity across campus is more than 30 years old with deteriorating insulation. The substation has a capacity of 30 megawatts, and on its busiest days – usually in the heat of summer – it uses about 28 or 29 megawatts, Rowan said.

When the university’s new health sciences building, expected to open in late 2017, is running at full capacity, it will likely use another four or five megawatts, Rowan said.

“[The system] is vulnerable to catastrophic failure at several points,” UMB President Dr. Jay A. Perman told the University System of Maryland Board of Regents at a recent briefing on the system’s capital budget needs. There’s a “very real” possibility of the campus being shut down for an extended period of time due to a failure, Perman said.

A major outage in Nov. 2011, caused by water leaking down onto the substation, shut down the entire campus for hours, Rowan said. A temporary repair was arranged, but replacing the damaged – and outdated – switch took months, he said.

The outages pose a real threat to the university’s research projects and facilities, which include powerful freezers that store tissue samples going back decades, Rowan said.

An outage a few years ago cost one faculty member $1 million worth of research; in total, the university does about $500 million worth of grant-funded research every year, he said.

Buildings are equipped with emergency generators, but they only offer enough power to run emergency systems such as exit lighting and sprinklers.

The university’s plan is to build a new substation somewhere on the north end of campus, which will draw power from the BG&E facility on Orchard Street and feed it to the key research buildings, Rowan said.

Once that redundancy is in place, the university will rebuild its current substation and replace the cable infrastructure around the campus, which will involve digging up some streets, Rowan said.

The University of Maryland Medical Center buildings are fed by a separate substation built about 20 years ago and aren’t as vulnerable as the rest of campus but would benefit from the additional redundancy in the system, Rowan said.

Perman asked the regents to ensure $82 million in funding for the overhaul through 2025, starting with $6 million in planning funding in fiscal 2017. The regents are weighing that request, along with others from USM officials, as they build their capital budget proposal for state officials to consider.