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How Microgrids Helped Keep Hospitals Open During Hurricane Harvey

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Hurricane Harvey was a test case for how microgrids can help blunt the negative effects of major natural disasters. It’s likely this event will have significant repercussions on how disasters are handled in the future by increased utilization of microgrid technology.

Hurricane Harvey and Microgrids

Hurricane Harvey had a number of serious effects on the people in Texas. Many lost their homes and businesses due to flooding. One thing that is discussed less frequently is the serious effect Hurricane Harvey is having on energy in the area.

Energy is critically important for emergency services such as hospitals. When hospitals lose power, the ramifications can be severe. It’s crucial to make sure there are additional options available for power.

Microgrids allow for this possibility. They are made up of a series of energy sources linked together in a network, often with a smart controller making sure they perform as efficiently as possible and in a manner they can help the most.


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The Energy Challenges of a Disaster

When Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast, more than 200,000 customers lost power, cutting them off from the wider national energy network. Utility crews worked to fix the problem of getting the power lines up again, but the flood waters were so bad in some areas that it wasn't always possible for the crews to make repairs.

Critical services like medical care from hospitals were often left without power. Lights going out during a surgery could have dire consequences for someone’s life. Many people in hospitals need power to get the life-giving care they need. Dialysis machines, breathing machines, machines that circulate blood, X-ray machines and just about every other kind of service necessary to diagnose and treat people is dependent on power.

It's not just hospitals that have this problem. It’s highly advantageous for convenience stores to stay open during extended disasters so that people still have access to food and water.

How Microgrids Helped Hospitals Stay Open

Texas Medical Center, one of the largest of its kind in the world that performs medical research to the tune of nearly $2 billion annually, was seriously affected by the flooding of Hurricane Harvey.

A local energy company set up backup energy and heat services that allowed the medical center to continue operating without loss of life or crucial research.

Nearby, a series of gas stations and convenience stores stayed open with the help of a microgrid company which used natural gas generators to create a microgrid between the participating stores. It created what’s called "virtual power plant microgrids" to keep everything running.

Microgrids are uniquely disposed to help with this type of problem. Often, they are one of the only hopes for energy if an area becomes completely cut off. Not only does it become impossible to keep the area on the power grid, delivering gas to the area would need to be done with helicopters or boats which is often unfeasible.


Lessons Learned

Many hospitals had to evacuate and close due to Hurricane Harvey, like Ben Taub General Hospital. But, there is evidence to suggest that there’s going to be more of a response to this since people have been working on microgrids due to past disasters.

For example, test microgrids have shown up in areas like Dallas. The area is testing as many as 100 different tools for handling energy concerns in a microgrid way including with smart controls handling HVAC, batteries, water heaters, and many others. It's likely Hurricane Harvey and other disasters will increase the number of studies on backup energy systems on a microgrid to prevent loss of connection to wider resources on a natural level.

Many places, like the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, are setting up feasibility studies to determine how they could set up additional microgrid studies. Both practical physical tests and extended studies into feasibility will likely happen.

We've learned a lot since Hurricane Harvey, including:

  • Hospitals can’t count on never being cut off - With hospitals losing power and shutting down, it’s clear that having a long-term backup solution is necessary. While many hospitals have backup power options for a short amount of time, long-term generators for natural gas is a better option.
  • Microgrids can be lifesavers during disasters - People can die as a result of a hurricane without energy backup options. That means that if this strategy works, it could literally be a matter of life and death. It’s impossible to predict when and where the next natural disaster will strike, but you can bet it will. That’s why setting up microgrids ahead of time is so critical.
  • Development for microgrids should begin now - You can't quickly set up a microgrid when a disaster is approaching. Instead, you have to plan for which sources, which businesses and which hospitals should be incorporated into a net. This requires extensive planning and purchases for installing the right infrastructure. Groups that band together for mutually-useful energy agreements can have a huge positive impact, especially in times of stress on energy systems.

There is great potential for microgrids to substantially reduce the pain and suffering of people caught in a natural disaster. The key lies in preparation.

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Posted: September 19, 2017