University researchers grapple with impacts of power outages

Thousands of microorganisms sat in buckets on Dennis Sun’s kitchen table. Sun, a University of California, Berkeley graduate researcher of molecular and cell biology, rescued them after receiving a notification that PG&E might be shutting off power in his lab. If they did, his work could be set back by up to two years.

Universities across the Bay Area have grappled with the impacts of the Kincade Fire and PG&E’s preventive power outages, that left over 1.5 million Californians without of power throughout October.

In addition to impacts on research, classes at Berkeley were cancelled during the outages. College of Marin also cancelled classes and closed off their campus for four days. Sonoma State University closed on Oct. 26 and was set to reopen Nov. 4.

While Stanford University wasn’t impacted by the Kincade Fire, during last fall’s Camp Fire, Stanford canceled classes due to the unhealthy air quality conditions.

Sun works in Patel Lab at Berkeley, which in the end, didn’t lose power. Sun points to miscommunication as a primary contributor to the stress.

“It seemed that the university wasn’t clear from PG&E’s side what was going to happen,” he says, which trickled down into uncertainty for the building managers and the researchers themselves. Other labs at Berkeley, Sun says, shipped freezers across the San Francisco Bay to U.C. San Francisco at the first warning of an outage, in order to play it safe.

The Patel Lab is split with offices in Berkeley and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Usually, this bicoastal model provides a safety net where one lab gives support to the other in case of an emergency. However, in this instance, during the fires and outages here, Cape Cod sustained a major storm, which also resulted in power outages.

“For both of them to go off at the same time, in totally, geographically separate locations, it just speaks to the fact that climate change is hitting us everywhere. On every side. As weather becomes more extreme everywhere, for researchers, there are going to be challenges we haven’t had to face before,” Sun says.


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