How does that light turn on? Meeting the folks who run Wesleyan’s Central Power Plant

Recently students and faculty of the Think Tank we were given a tour of the University’s Central Power Plant—the plant which generates steam, electricity and hot and chilled water to heat/cool and power nearly ALL of Wesleyan’s facilities. The power plant does receive reserve/back up power from the City of Middletown, but it is remarkable that nearly all of what the University needs comes from this small plant. And more importantly, the plant is run and maintained by a small team of just 5 employees who work around the clock—24/7.

I worked for nearly 4 years with Austin Energy to create PowerUP, a performance with City of Austin linemen, electricians, engineers and other Austin Energy employees, so I was completely engrossed in this tour and loved seeing the similarities and differences between this and what I observed with AE.

One common thread—it’s hard work. As Dave Pompei, head of the Power Plant, explained to us, “It’s tough..running this campus is tough.”

Dave has 35 years in the industry and he is a steam expert. As his colleague Alan Rubacha explained, people don’t learn how to work with steam anymore—today Dave is a rare breed. He learned how to work with steam while with the Navy, and these days he has to train his employees in the art of working with steam as most people can’t learn about it in the field anymore.

“The work seems easy, but with a lot people it goes over their heads,” explained Dave. He continued, “It’s a different kind of animal. It’s dangerous.”

When I asked Dave what was the one thing he wanted people to know about his work and the Power Plant, he answered (very much like Austin Energy employees did), “the work is hard and complicated—it takes a lot to keep this campus running.” He was happy to report that he has had many students show up and be interested in his work. Still, when the power goes out, many people don’t understand it doesn’t just mean flipping a switch. It’s a highly complex and delicate process.

It was also clear how much Dave and his team love their work. The power plant itself is pristinely clean, and for the men who work there I imagine it functions much like a second home. And Dave said himself that Wesleyan’s plant is the best college power plant around, hands down. I had no ideas that most colleges operate their own power plants, but now that I think about it of course it makes sense for the institutions to power/heat/cool their own facilities.

I loved seeing the relays and hearing the power talk, and this all made me miss my Austin Energy folks. It also showed me that I learned a least a little hanging out with those engineers and linemen for 3+ years.

Thanks for the tour Alan and Dave, and thanks for all of your work to keep Wesleyan running!

Dave Pompei telling us what it takes to run Wesleyan's Central Power Plant
Dave Pompei telling us what it takes to run Wesleyan’s Central Power Plant
Alan taking us inside the plant- notice how clean the floor is!

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