In her five years living at Family Student Housing (FSH), Melissa Svigelj has acquired a bevy of camping lanterns, a battery generator, a solar panel, and a camping stove. These items aren’t for outdoor living, though — they’re for power outages.
“My first year here, we had power outages for extended times, and I was so traumatized by it that I went out and got every camping thing that I could to survive it,” Svigelj said, laughing. “Now I’m super prepared. It’s a lot more comfortable for me than the people who are moving in and [don’t] know that there [is] no [backup power].”
Since Svigelj moved into FSH with her son, she’s endured a power outage almost every year. This winter, FSH lost power three times.
“I don’t blame the university for the power outage. But they have the ability to intervene … I blame them for not having systems in place to avoid these extended outages that we always have.” — Melissa Svigelj
Lower Campus, which includes FSH and Employee Housing, is on a separate PG&E power grid from Main Campus. Unpredictable weather and planned public safety shut-offs have become more frequent in recent years, and FSH’s placement within the power grid has proven problematic.
“If there’s anywhere upstream from FSH that has a disruption […] FSH usually is [affected by] that,” said Steve Houser, Colleges, Housing and Educational Services’ (CHES) Capital Planning Director. “It’s the furthest distance away on that branch of distribution from PG&E.”
FSH has no backup power supply to support residents during outages.
Most of Main Campus is connected to backup generators. Some areas, like Oakes College, only have emergency generators. Other facilities, like many on Science Hill, have “seamless” power, providing full, uninterrupted power during outages, according to Housing Services and Facilities Executive Director Dave Keller.
UCSC owns all of the energy distribution infrastructure on Main Campus, which means that they can make improvements without PG&E’s approval. That isn’t the case for Lower Campus. There, PG&E owns all energy infrastructure and equipment outside of the buildings. This means that Lower Campus can’t, for instance, be connected to UCSC’s on-campus power plant, the Cogeneration Plant.
FSH doesn’t have any generators in its residential buildings. During recent outages, a single portable generator was brought into the Community Room, which is shared by all residents.
That means that when the power in FSH goes out, it really goes out: water runs cold, food in fridges spoils, and the childcare center is closed.
During recent outages, UCSC provided FSH residents with support in the form of free hotel room stays and dining hall meals. But Houser said that any major investments in FSH’s infrastructure would be unfeasible, because UCSC is planning to demolish FSH in the near future.
“I don’t think the campus would have looked at [FSH’s power supply], because for a long time, there have been plans to renovate and build a new family housing complex. Where FSH is now [will be] the site of Student Housing West,” Keller said. “So I think that is probably the biggest driver, at least recently.”
Student Housing West (SHW) is a student housing development outlined in UCSC’s most recent Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). More information can be found on Student Housing West’s website.
Stephanie Hertel, another FSH resident and graduate student, has heard this justification before.
“The constant excuse is that [FSH is] going to get demolished, so they don’t want to invest in doing any larger upkeep or maintenance,” Hertel said. “Everyone’s just kind of sitting with this thing that might happen, but it’s not going to happen for any of us who are living here right now.”
Stephanie Hertel, a grad student in the education department, a mother, and one of the residents impacted by the power outages, outside her home in Family Student Housing. Photo by Lucy Wald.
FSH probably won’t be demolished until fall 2025, according to Houser’s earliest estimate. In the meantime, CHES and Physical Planning, Development and Operations (PPDO) are assessing how much portable generator power they can add to FSH. Keller noted that if generators were installed at FSH, they could be repurposed when the facility is demolished.
However, even this temporary solution is still up in the air.
“Because PG&E owns [FSH’s power distribution infrastructure], it does limit the solutions, because implementing any solution would require PG&E’s approval,” Houser said. “PG&E’s interest is probably to not have to keep maintaining that old equipment out there.”
UCSC would also have to get approval from Santa Cruz’s local air quality authority, the Monterey Bay Air Resources District, because the generators usually run on diesel or another fossil fuel.
Considering this, UCSC is looking into other emergency power options. They might use “uninterruptible power sources” that store power like large batteries, or provide each resident with a rechargeable power station, according to Keller.
“We’re looking at all of that because it would be nice to have the complex on generators versus asking folks to go to a hotel, and all the things we do currently,” Keller said.
In Svigelj’s experience, FSH residents have to push the campus to get their needs met. In the past, they’ve had to organize for improved Internet connectivity during the pandemic, and for UCSC to rebuild an out-of-commission playground near the childcare center.
To Hertel, the lack of generator power is just another way UCSC has overlooked the needs of FSH residents.
“I think it’s bigger than the power outages; we’re not the only ones that experience power outages,” Hertel said. “It’s more complicated than that. I think the university can step up their game in terms of updating infrastructure for its students.”