Healthcare & Critical Service Microgrids in an Era of COVID-19: The Latest

April 21, 2020
A hospital in Victoria, Texas, later this month will announce commissioning of a new microgrid, likely to be one of the first healthcare microgrid to come on line during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A hospital in Victoria, Texas, later this month will announce commissioning of a new microgrid, likely to be one of the first healthcare microgrid to come on line during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Of course, the timing is fortuitous — Citizens Medical Center announced plans to install the 2.8 MW microgrid long before the pandemic, about a year ago, spurred by a different disaster, Hurricane Harvey. 

But the project stands out because it will draw attention at a time when the argument is likely to intensify for microgrids at critical facilities, such as hospitals, community shelters, grocery stores and data centers. Power outages could be catastrophic in places where the pandemic has put these facilities under extreme pressure, especially if utility crews are spread thin.

See related story about two other healthcare microgrids announced this month after the publication of this story: Bloom’s Quick Build Microgrids Installed at COVID-19 Field Hospitals in California

Citizens learned what it’s like to face a power outage with only emergency generators when Harvey hit Texas in August 2017. The back-up system provided only enough capacity to support the equipment, life safety and critical loads required for regulatory compliance — a common circumstance in hospitals. As a result, the hospital had to evacuate patients.

Built in partnership with Texas-based Enchanted Rock, the new natural gas microgrid will keep the hospital fully powered during a grid failure.

The project is also providing cost and environmental benefits for the hospital. 

The healthcare microgrid will operate under Enchanted Rock’s resiliency-as-a-service offering, which allows hosts to pay a fraction of what they would pay if they owned the microgrid outright. For this installation, Citizens only paid 20% of the total cost of ownership.

Enchanted Rock is able to do this because it leverages the microgrid for use by the grid when the hospital does not need its backup power. The company aggregates microgrid systems and sells their output to the grid to earn revenue that subsidizes the cost of the systems.  

The environmental advantages come from swapping out use of diesel backup with natural gas that Enchanted Rock describes as hundreds of times cleaner than diesel on all constituent emissions.

Citizens Medical Center. Courtesy of Enchanted Rock

Hospital and microgrid in one?

Winch Energy is taking an even more dramatic step to securing reliable energy for healthcare, in this case for remote regions. The company, which provides off-grid energy in Africa, is now offering a kind of healthcare clinic and microgrid in one.

Called the Winch Clinic, the mobile health facility is powered by renewable energy. A modular structure, it can be installed in a matter of weeks, according to the company. Housed in 20-40 foot containers, the clinic can be configured to include four or eight full-service rooms and easily expanded as demand increases, with between 24 and 48 beds. The rooms can be arranged to provide a range of purposes, such as dispensary, consulting room, surgery room, ICU, examination room.

The clinic is powered by the solar panels and an integrated battery.

“The recent COVID-19 pandemic has only further highlighted the importance of providing healthcare facilities that can reliably run day and night to treat patients and prevent the spread of disease,” said Nicholas Wrigley, CEO of Winch Energy. “We are pleased that we have been able to bring forward the launch of the Winch Clinic and introduce it at a time when governments and health organizations are calling for clinics that can quickly be deployed and adapted for testing and treatment in response to the virus.”

A broad range of other microgrids for hospital and critical service facilities are already in operation or under development. Here are four examples.

A solar-storage microgrid demonstration at a California hospital aims to deliver substantial energy cost savings, as well as enhance reliability, resiliency and environmental quality. Renewable energy microgrids, such as the one up and running at Kaiser Permanente’s Richmond Medical Center, have the potential to reduce hospitals’ energy bills by as much as 50%. 

Partners HealthCare, a medical network in New England, is moving forward with plans to install 4.1 MW of Bloom Energy fuel cells across its footprint of medical, healthcare, administrative and data center facilities in Massachusetts.

“Partners intends to deploy the new systems at its corporate headquarters in Somerville, where more than 4,500 employees from administrative departments are based. They will also be deployed at North Shore Medical Center and Partners’ data center in Marlborough,” Partners’ Senior Manager, Energy & Sustainability Dennis Villanueva told Microgrid Knowledge.

The integrated healthcare systems signed a 15-year power purchase agreement with Bloom Energy for the fuel cells, primarily as a way to improve electric resiliency and reliability.

By Mark Winfrey/Shutterstock.com

Working with PowerSecure and Tampa Electric (TECO), Metropolitan Ministries Foundation designed a microgrid to enable the organization to continue to serve its community, even through severe storms.

The microgrid project had its roots in 2017 when Hurricane Irma was barreling toward Tampa. As it turned out, Tampa did not experience a direct hit from Irma, but Metropolitan Ministries’ main campus and much of the region suffered from flooding and lost power for four days or more.

The morning after, families came to Metropolitan Ministries and lined up looking for help. Metropolitan Ministries was forced to operate in the dark with a mobile kitchen in the parking lot in order to feed community members and residents and keep them safe.

Utilities in California are pre-emptively turning off transmission lines that could spark wildfires, but residents of Fremont can sleep a little more soundly knowing that the city’s microgrids will be there.

About two years ago, Fremont installed microgrids at three of its fire stations. At the time, the city was interested in getting clean and renewable power and felt that the battery integration would provide for additional utility bill savings as well as energy resiliency, said Rachel DiFranco, the city’s sustainability manager.

If the fire stations are threatened by a planned outage — known as a public safety power shutoff (PSPS) — “we would not have to worry about the facilities with microgrids as they are designed to automatically cut over to an ‘islanding’ mode in the event of a grid outage,” DiFranco said.

Join us for a free session on healthcare microgrid projects at the Microgrid Knowledge Virtual Conference, 2 pm,  June 1. See the agenda and register for the free 3-day event here.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded RealEnergyWriters.com, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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