Industry Voices—How microgrids can keep healthcare facilities open during grid outages

Last year, millions of families and businesses from coast to coast were left in the dark during California’s multiple planned power outage events and the Northeast’s record-breaking "bomb cyclone" and recent winter storms. We need better power backups for healthcare. (Getty Images/gmcoop)

Within the past year, millions of families and businesses from coast-to-coast have been left in the dark during California’s multiple planned power outage events and the Northeast’s record-breaking bomb cyclone and recent winter storms.

As we increasingly experience extreme storms and frequent power outages, our health care system, specifically hospitals, act as our front lines for saving lives and treating those in need.

Trusted to treat and protect, hospitals play an important 24/7 role in our communities. With year-round business structures, high foot traffic, and complex operations, electricity is the lifeblood for hospitals. From electronic health records to electrocardiography and automated pill dispenser machines, these digital tools are relied upon to maintain secure environments and provide consistent care for patients.

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At the same time, the electric grid becomes increasingly vulnerable to failures and hospitals, who simply can’t afford to lose power, remain responsible by local, state, and federal law to produce reliable power during extended outages.

I know what you must be thinking – I have back up for that.

As the grid ages and emergency power requirements remain critical to operations, hospitals must innovate and adopt reliable and resilient power systems – not depend on diesel generator backups, which lack brawn when it comes to human error in maintenance.

With high stake essential electrical system (EES) loads that hospitals carry every day, including the NFPA 99 code risk ‘Category 1’, meaning failure of equipment would cause major injury or death, grid power and industry-standard diesel backup systems are no longer sufficient.

This is especially true in the wake of natural disaster-induced power outages, when communities rely on hospitals as safe havens and backup energy production relies on ill-maintained diesel generators.

What our health care system needs is a Microgrid solution. This requires a change in behavior; a switch from complete reliance on the grid to an ecosystem of grid power, on-site microgrids, and backup generators.

Microgrids act as local, miniature version of the electric grid. They can dispatch, distribute, and regulate the flow of electricity at healthcare facilities in normal source capacity. Since they can work while connected to the electric grid, or in parallel to it, microgrids can carry commercial-sized EES loads seamlessly through grid failure or blackouts.

Instead of worrying solely on whether unreliable diesel backup generators will catch critical EES loads during such events, a microgrid remains primary power as usual. This way, diesel generators can remain in standby and be the ‘last line of defense’ for EES loads.

RELATED: Report: Climate changes costing U.S. billions in health spending

Microgrids also have the upper hand when it comes to sustainability and efficiency. Since they can be an energy mix of fuel cells, solar and storage, and small wind turbines, microgrids are cleaner and provide more stable energy.

As hospitals require round the clock power, microgrids can continuously cover the entire baseload required with high capacity factor energy sources like fuel cells, diesel generators, or CHP.

Now is the time for health care systems to think differently about the resilience and reliability of its current power systems.

By pairing the main electric grid with on-site microgrids, hospitals can keep primary power on during blackouts – first and foremost, saving lives, but also continuing all needed services and operations to ensure that patients receive a high standard of care no matter the situation.

Niru Kumar is the product leader of healthcare microgrids at Bloom Energy.

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