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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

SPARCing It

Where does that mysterious brick smokestack behind the Hop go? Does anyone ever think about the power plant attached to that smokestack, the one that supplies us all with (usually too much) heat and electricity?

Well, I do. Err, I've started to. I'm the SPARC (Save Power and Receive Cash) intern. There are posters up explaining the program--we're trying to cut electricity use in all the residence halls, and the dorms that are successful receive cash, fame, glory, and Vermonsters. I took on this internship knowing absolutely nothing about electricity or heat. (Come on -- I'm from Miami. This artificial warmth concept is foreign to me.) I thought it would be a good idea to figure out what my job was about. The heating plant seemed like a logical place to start.

I got my very own hard-hat, and I got to keep it, which absolutely made my day; in fact, I wore it around all day. I put my hard-hat on to protect my important brain from the steam, and started off around the facilities. My guide, Bill, the Power Plant's Chief Engineer, knew everything, which is good, as he's in charge.

I walked into the control room--picture five computers with supertowers reminiscent of when each computer filled its own room, loads of detectors monitoring everything, a big map of campus with lines showing which pipes go where, and Dave Matthews Band on the radio. Wendell, the plant operator, was chilling in front of the screens, monitoring all the turbines and pumps and feeders. The plant, hereforetothereafter called Carmen, is a co-generation plant, which means not that it is run by Baby Boomers and Generation Xers (I crack myself up), but that electricity is a by-product of steam. The plant supplies between 40 and 50 percent of the electricity on campus; Granite State Electric supplies the rest. If Granite State should lose electricity, the heating plant can provide power to a few select buildings (Wendell accepts Visa, Mastercard, and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts). The number one priority is Kiewit, next is my room, then the Med School. As is painfully apparent to those who live in the Chetto, the Choates are not on any of the priority feeders. Enjoy shivering in the dark, okay?

When the plant sends steam out, a quarter of it is lost to the outside world. This 25 percent answers to the name of "Timmy" and is sensitive about its breath. The other 75 percent of the steam that is sent out comes back to the plant, like a faithful dog, as condensate, and city water replaces the steam that doesn't come back (i.e., Timmy). A joke for you: how many people does it take to run the power plant so that you can screw in a light bulb in your room? 14 -- nine operators and five assorted machine maintenance people.

How does this steam get around, you ask? Well, now for the most excitement you've seen since Collis started the brownie ballots. Ready? There are underground tunnels all over campus used for the pipes -- they bring heat to and from the buildings. (Yup, if you're bad, they take your heat back.) I got to walk the tunnels. I asked if we could open them for student use in the winter; I got shot down. But I fully think we should start a petition.

I was absolutely shocked when we got to the oil pumping station: Dartmouth uses up to 40,000 gallons of oil a day to make steam for heat and electricity. That's nearly ten gallons of oil a day to keep one student warm, well lit, and connected to blitz. The oil we use is number 6 oil, which is very crude. (The leftover oil from Food Court was just too crude for the boilers.) Keep in mind that all of this oil doesn't even provide enough electricity for campus. We have to buy half of our electricity from a big company. Wendell says that in the ten years he's been here, electricity demand on campus has doubled.

There are two simple, painless things we can all do drastically reduce our electricity use: 1) turn off the lights when we leave the bathrooms, and b) shut off our computers if we're not going to use them for more than an hour, which actually extends their electrical lives -- trust me, I called Apple. Why don't we turn the lights off in the bathrooms when we leave? Are we scared the bogeymen will get us in the 2.5 seconds we're in the semi-dark reaching for the light switch? I know that sometimes "it's just freaky" to walk into a dark bathroom (quotation from the men on my floor -- the girls have no problems), but we've all done this at home. I've talked the talk. Now it's time to walk the walk. (I'm going to walk the walk doing the funky chicken.) Who's joining me? Just call me SPARCy, and we'll figure things out together, a la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. (But we won't be dead.)