As a general rule, something built or established in 1893 outlived its usefulness years ago.

So it’s probably not a stretch to say that John McBryde, Virginia Tech’s president at the turn of the 20th century and the founder of the Electric Light Department in 1893, would be shocked to learn that the university’s provider of electricity still serves its pragmatic purpose 130 years later.

Now named the Virginia Tech Electric Service and fittingly located on Energy Drive, the electric utility continues to meet the energy needs for an ever-growing campus and also a certain section of Blacksburg residents today. It does so mainly because of one reason: a staff committed to it.

“They’re dedicated people. You just think about how we respond to outages during off hours and weekends. Ensuring reliability and good service requires good commitment from the team,” said Nam Nguyen, executive director of energy and utilities for Virginia Tech. 

“Several people who work on our line crews, in engineering, in our business office, and at our warehouse have been here for two decades or longer. You’ve got folks who have been here and been through the history of changes, and they know all the facilities people and how to coordinate with everyone. It’s good to have people who have knowledge and experience not just on the electrical side, but also having strong relationships both on campus and in town. That’s always a valuable asset.”

Virginia Tech Electric Service linemen work on a 4160-volt overhead system in 1958. Virginia Tech photo
Virginia Tech Electric Service crews replace streetlights in the Town of Blacksburg in the mid-1980s. Virginia Tech photo

Nguyen, a 1988 graduate of the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, took over the Virginia Tech Electric Service this past January after a six-year stint at the Virginia Department of Energy. He also worked for nearly three decades at Dominion Energy in Richmond.

Nguyen oversees operations for a service that provides electric utilities for the university’s Blacksburg campus, the Corporate Research Center, and approximately 6,000 residential and commercial customers in Blacksburg. Interestingly, the Virginia Tech Electric Service is one of just two on-campus power utilities — Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, being the other — that provides electricity to the town in which it resides.

“One of the things that this team is dedicated to is maintaining a high level of reliable service because we understand the criticality of the operations on campus, not only for the students, but the faculty and the academic research that's going on,” Nguyen said. “And we serve the town of Blacksburg, so we’ve always been a part of the community and work very closely with them. We do a lot of community outreach, lighting the town’s holiday tree and going to elementary and middle schools to talk about electrical safety, and we hold other discussions on things like recycling and sustainability. We try to engage the community that we’re in, so it’s not all about providing electricity.”

College of Architecture, Arts, and Design students visit a Virginia Tech Electric Service substation. Photo by Andrew Durfee for Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech Electric Service attends Auburn Elementary School's Career Day. Photo by Andrew Durfee for Virginia Tech.

The Virginia Tech Electric Service resides in a world of constant evolution and has since its inception. Both the university and the town continue to grow, which means the electric service needs to expand and update existing infrastructure to keep pace.

It must do so while keeping in step with the university’s Climate Action Commitment, which calls for the institution to be carbon neutral by 2030. Transitioning to renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, while not interrupting service remains a priority.

The Virginia Tech Electric Service installed a solar array atop the Perry Street parking garage in 2013 that produces 100 kilowatts of solar power and will be installing 2.2 megawatts of rooftop solar across campus over the next two years. In addition, upgrades to grid infrastructure already have increased power distribution efficiency as well as improved its reliability and resiliency.

Another of the Virginia Tech Electric Service’s current projects to help it meet the Climate Action Commitment goal consists of undertaking a utility master plan, which assesses all of Virginia Tech’s utilities, including the electric service, steam and hot water, chiller, water, and sewer. The master plan assesses the condition and capacity for serving campus growth and doing so with sustainability in mind.

“As a part of that, asset management will come out,” Nguyen said. “We’re continually looking at our infrastructure and assessing our assets to make sure that we replace aging assets and modernize our systems.”

Modernizing means continuing with the implementation of Advanced Metering Infrastructure. Once fully implemented, customers will have the ability to access their hourly consumption information and to set up alerts if they reach certain thresholds. Advanced Metering Infrastructure also allows the Virginia Tech Electric Service to know when an outage occurs without anyone calling, thus enabling the electric service to troubleshoot the problem quicker and restore service faster.

Virginia Tech Electric Service crew members wear fire-retardant flash suits while demonstrating the isolation of a switch in a vault by plugging and unplugging energized cables at 12,500 volts using “hot sticks.” Working with energized equipment can be necessary to minimize outages to customers. Photo by Sarah Myers for Virginia Tech.

Modernizing also means planning for a potential influx of electric cars. The Virginia Tech Electric Service is involved in several projects that call for the installation of electric-vehicle charging stations at various spots on campus.

In addition, the Virginia Tech Electric Service is modernizing its infrastructure for an expected expansion of solar energy, particularly within the town limits. This means the service needs the equipment to be able to accommodate customers with electricity when solar panels are not generating because of cloudy or rainy weather.   

So, the Virginia Tech Electric Service always is working on and planning for multiple projects and for two different constituency groups.

“Our theme is to adapt and evolve with the changing of the energy market and really making sure that we serve not only the campus, but the town as well,” Nguyen said. “We have two different sets of needs, but all with the same goals.”

Reaching those goals will be a challenge for the Virginia Tech Electric Service, but it remains ready for any challenges. And it certainly has a track record of success — one that stretches back 130 years.

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