Unlike many Californians, people at Westmont are convinced that the state confronts a critical power crisis. Since July 2000, the college’s electricity has been interrupted 33 times for a total of 108 hours. About half that time officials turned the switch back on to keep some of the campus going, despite being fined nearly $200,000 for that privilege. But for 52 hours, classes met in unlit rooms, staff worked in offices without power and heat, and students groped their way through dark hallways and dorm rooms.
Generators kept the power on in the dining commons and library, so students could eat and study. Page Hall has a permanent generator, and two other dormitories have portable ones on standby.
Similar to other colleges across Southern California, Westmont has an interruptible service contract with Southern California Edison. This means the utility can cut off power with little notice during power emergencies. In exchange, Westmont pays less for electricity, which has saved the college about $60,000 a year. Since peak usage and shortages usually occur during the summer, college staff never expected interruptions during the school year.
Until July, Westmont had experienced one or two interruptions in 12 years. But the ongoing crisis in California created a series of interruptions that hit hard in December and January. Westmont officials met several times with representatives from Southern California Edison to resolve the problem or opt out of the interruptible contract. But the California Public Utilities Commission suspended that option until at least March.
As part of a consortium of colleges, Westmont has appealed the fines to the commission and hopes they will be eliminated or reduced. Meanwhile, when interruptions occur in the future, officials have decided to switch to generators capable of powering several buildings, reduce consumption as much as possible, and keep power flowing to the entire campus so life can proceed normally.
While the governor and state legislature seek a solution to the ongoing crisis, Westmont continues to conserve energy wherever possible while ensuring the safety of students, faculty and staff.
Actions include turning down the heat, switching off unnecessary lights, and shutting down computers, printers and copiers not in use. Students are also encouraged to turn off televisions, stereos, computers and lamps.
While the outages have been annoying, most people have maintained a sense of humor. Professors moved classes to rooms with windows or even outdoors and students used flashlights and lanterns to study, often gathering in groups to share the light.
Minutes before the tip-off for a women’s basketball game against Azusa Pacific, the power suddenly shut down, leaving the teams, fans, officials and coaches stranded in the gym lit by emergency lights. After an hour the electricity — and the game — resumed.
For some students, the inconvenient darkness seemed primitive, and withdrawal from technology bred simpler pastimes, such as sleep.
The darkness also inspired mischief. Page students dusted off their water balloon launchers and blasted innocent bystanders from a second-story window. Pranksters waited patiently in bushes near buildings to startle students walking in the dark. Cold temperatures led some to decorate rooms with toilet paper to simulate snow. Bumping into things in the dark was bad enough; then students started rearranging furniture, causing further confusion and bruises.
Some women faced a dire dilemma: how could they dry their hair? Once they learned the dining commons had emergency power, some arrived with hair dryer in hand.
At a recent auction, one of the items up for bid was an emergency blackout kit, complete with headlamp, flashlights and glowsticks.
It’s good to be prepared, but Westmont officials hope the blackouts are now over.