California Power Outage Wreaks Havoc at Research Labs

A darkened pharmacy in Sonoma, California.
Image: AP

Science laboratories in northern California are scrambling to protect precious supplies, samples, and lab animals threatened by an extensive power outage.

The northern California power outage started on Wednesday when the state’s biggest power provider, Pacific Gas & Electric, deliberately shut down electricity to prevent downed equipment from sparking wildfires. Forecasts of strong, warm winds prompted the extreme measure, as the company is trying to avoid a repeat of the 2018 Camp Fire in which 86 people were killed.

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Nearly 800,000 customers were affected in northern California, and as of this morning, some 300,000 customers are still without electricity, reports CNN. The intentional blackout has caused major disruptions at university campuses, prompting numerous school closures.

At the University of California, Berkeley, students were told to stay away from main campus until further notice. The campus is currently running on “very limited backup power from portable generators” and its cogeneration plant, “which supplies the campus with steam heat and electricity,” explained a Berkeley News release. This backup plant doesn’t have “sufficient capacity” to provide full power to the campus, and the little power that is available “must be used for life-safety needs and to preserve critical research infrastructure.”

The outage is causing turmoil and stress at affected science labs, forcing researchers to rescue precious samples and supplies that need to be refrigerated, along with vulnerable lab animals.

James Olzmann, an associate professor of metabolic biology at UC Berkeley, brought in moving trucks to relocate cells kept at his lab, he said in a tweet.

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“Many friends and colleagues barely have enough emergency power to keep freezers cold and incubators running,” Julia Torvi, a UC Berkeley graduate student and researcher, told the New York Times. “These two things hold millions of dollars of research, tens of years of effort, their contents being irreplaceable.”

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On Twitter, PhD student Dennis Sun from Berkeley’s Molecular and Cell Biology Department said he had to take drastic measures to save thousands of crustaceans kept at his lab—which he did by bringing them into his kitchen.

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Writing in Nature News, Jeff Tollefson provides some more distressing examples, including stories of researchers who may have already lost precious work.

The outage has also caused some to call for changes to avoid this crisis in the future, as demonstrated in a pair of mean tweets put out by Noah Whiteman, and associate professor from the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley:

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Some power-critical projects have managed to avoid disruptions, including Berkeley’s SETI@home project, a scientific experiment that uses internet-connected computers to assist in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

“Our servers are located in the campus Data Center which is protected by a high capacity UPS [uninterruptible power supply],” wrote Jeff Cobb, a SETI@home administrator and scientist at the project’s message board. “We expect that our servers will remain up for the duration of the outage. Thus far Internet connectivity also remains up although this depends on factors outside of the Data Center.”

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Other universities affected by the outage included Humboldt State University, Mills College, Santa Rosa Junior College, and Sonoma State University, according to Inside Higher Ed. Meanwhile, UC Santa Cruz was barely affected. With power restored, the university is resuming classes today, saying power “was never lost at our Coastal Science Campus or at our Scotts Valley Center,” according to a UC Santa Cruz press release. “The Silicon Valley Campus also was unaffected by Pacific Gas and Electric’s Public Safety Power Shut Off.”

It could be a few more days before power is fully restored in northern California, so this continues to be an ongoing story. If you’re a scientist and you’ve been personally affected by the blackout, please share your experience in the comments.

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About the author

George Dvorsky

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.