Power plant fuels campus life

Yale uses approximately half of the electricity it produces at the Yale Central Power Plant.
Yale uses approximately half of the electricity it produces at the Yale Central Power Plant. Photo by Emily Foxhall.

Few students notice the Yale power plant, a generic brick building at the corner of Grove and Ashmun streets. Those who do — in particular, the students living in Swing Space right next door — complain that the construction that keeps the plant up-to-date wakes them up at the crack of dawn.

But Yale’s Central Power Plant produces electricity, heat and air conditioning for the entirety of the undergraduate campus and most of Yale’s libraries, art galleries and other main buildings 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Without the power plant, there would be no heat in dorm rooms during the winter, no hot food in the dining halls and no research in science labs. Even the Woolsey Hall organ and the priceless paintings on the walls of the Yale University Art Gallery would fall into disrepair if the plant did not maintain the humidity levels necessary to protect them.

Although few Yalies notice the power plant during the year, two students have done summer internships there.
Although few Yalies notice the power plant during the year, two students have done summer internships there.

Yale uses roughly half the electricity it produces in the plant, and depending on the price of energy at the time, purchases the rest.

But for some, the plant is an exciting destination. Physics and applied physics professor Daniel Prober said he loves knowing he can walk down the street from his classroom with his students and see thermodynamics in action. He has toured the plant four times.

Employees said their work at the plant is both “boring” ­— most shifts are the same — and “stressful” — the stakes are high if anything goes wrong. Each man in the control room has worked there for at least 20 years and has seen the machinery develop as Yale’s campus has grown. Every one of the plant’s functions — from steam production to water refrigeration — has expanded over the years, and Yale has purchased temporary boilers and refrigeration units to help meet needs in times when complete renovation was not affordable. Even with all this change, it is a point of pride among the employees that, in the last two years, the plant has met every demand for energy on campus without fail or breakdown.

“We’re like the utilities basement for the whole campus,” said Thomas Starr, manager of Yale’s Central Power Plant. “We have to keep the air conditioning running!”


Though it provides their energy, the power plant does have some unhappy neighbors.

This fall, after Maddie Oliver’s ’13 first three days living in a Swing Space room she described as “five feet” from the construction site, she asked her master for new accommodations.

“My roommate and I would get woken up at 6 a.m.,” she said, adding that even in her new room she can still hear trucks at night, and her desk window looks out over the plant.

Under normal circumstances, the plant is not particularly disruptive, but since roughly a year ago, it has been under construction. Yale is expanding the facility’s size and capacity in anticipation of the power needs of the new buildings that are slated to be built in the next two decades, including the 13th and 14th residential colleges and research laboratories on Science Hill.

It keeps a great deal of evaluation to keep the plant up-to-date, Starr said — for the last several decades, Yale has drawn up a new plan for the facility every 20 years, assessing its current function and attempting to predict the ways it will need to change to keep abreast of the University’s growing needs.

“It’s a continuum,” Starr said. “We’re building for today and tomorrow and the next month or the next year.”

The current plan involves building a chiller plant in Science Park, expanding the current Grove Street plant and adding a fourth cable to the three that already connect Yale with an energy company. The plan was begun roughly seven years ago but is still in flux because Yale’s construction plans depend on the state of the economy. The current on-site renovation — without which Starr said Yale’s energy systems would not have been able to support the expanding campus — will cost an estimated $20 million, and will be finished next January.

Yale has two other power plants, one on the medical school campus and one on West Campus.

Three employees are on hand at the plant around the clock, and five maintenance staff members work Monday through Friday, keeping tabs on operating equipment and planning for long-term maintenance.

Employee Mike McDermott, who has worked at the plant for 33 years, said the machines have a smell and sound all their own, adding that he is so accustomed to the facility that he can tell in an instant if something is off.

Jack Nevill, who has worked at the plant for 37 years and owned the same hard hat for 18, said that while there have not been any major accidents in recent years, he has dealt with mechanical breakdowns in the past.

Starr told a story of an incident where construction workers on Canal Street accidentally cut through a chilled water line that transports water for air conditioning. Starr described the scene as “like having a severed artery.”

“We’ve got a system for handling it,” Starr said of the things that can go awry. “Every day we have an opportunity to fix something.”

Though unassuming, the plant can be perilous. A smaller building to the side houses the compressed gas that fuels the facility. Though surrounded by an aesthetically pleasing brick wall, Starr said the structure is actually an explosion proof bunker. The roof is attached by cable so that it will not fly off in the case of an explosion.

Starr said few students in Swing Space realize that the plant exists, let alone know the role it plays in their lives. But between 300 and 350 Yalies do tour the facility every year as part of their academic courseload. Two students have also worked summer internships there during Starr’s tenure.

Prober said he often takes students in his classes, such as Energy, Technology and Society, which he taught last year. He added that, though Yale is acclaimed for environmentally-conscious buildings like Kroon Hall, the power plant affects the University’s output more than any other structure. Anyone interested in energy needs to realize its importance, he added.

Erik Urosa ’13, who visited the plant with the Yale Energy Club, said he learned a great deal from seeing the machines operate and talking to the plant employees.

“They’re smart guys and they love to talk to someone about it,” Urosa said. “I think a lot of students could benefit from going over there.”


  • wtf

    When will the construction be finished? It is unbelievably loud and annoying; there should be no need to start work that early. I understand the need to renovate, but they should make it as unobtrusive as possible, especially because students are trying to sleep just feet away. This was certainly poor planning on someone’s part.

  • Fifster

    “Yale uses roughly half the electricity it produces in the plant, and depending on the price of energy at the time, purchases the rest.”

    This doesn’t make sense. It seems like this is trying to say either that, A) Half of the energy that Yale uses (on the central campus? Total?) comes from the plant, and it purchases the rest off the grid, OR B) Yale uses half of the energy that the power plant produces and sells the rest (perhaps to the power company).

    Which is it?

  • starrtf

    Yale uses all of the electricity produced at the Central Power Plant which is about half of the electricity used on the central campus. The remaining electricity is purchased on the wholesale market and delivered by the local utility. Hope that helps!

  • ma11

    Breaking news: there’s a power plant on campus. Is there anything new about this story? A few suggestions for a sequel: “Art gallery houses famous art” “Yale Farm produces vegetables” “Students live on Lynwood Place.” oh wait.

  • ds747

    @ma11: you clearly don’t understand feature journalism. i guarantee you knew next to nothing about the yale power plant before reading this article, and yet the plant is integral to student life on campus. sure, nothing actually happened to make this story “breaking news” but it sheds light on an aspect of Yale that few people know about. if newspapers only handled breaking news, journalism would be in a sorrier state than it is already.

  • Yale12

    No, I agree with ma11. Yes, there’s a difference between hard news journalism and feature journalism, but look at the features the New Journal or the Yale Daily News Magazine publish. The YDN’s choice of feature stories is often very poor, and mostly because their features are usually really boring. Whoever assigns and seeks out features could do a better job finding stories that are more interesting to the student body than a lot of the “profile-on-random-Yale-employee” stuff that gets published under the guise of a feature.

  • ygrd

    Well written article, and an interesting read. I’m sorry power plants aren’t flashy or exciting enough for some people, but there are those of us who appreciate this kind of reporting. Keep up the good work!

  • 201Y1

    @Yale12: That’s because the New Journal and YDN Mag publish submissions; the News assigns/pitches its features. Obviously there’s going to be a huge difference in quality and scope when the stories have been independently brainstormed, on the writer’s own time, without deadlines, and revised til kingdom come.

    Good article, Foxhall.