An Early Warning before Electric Grid Failure

Aug. 3, 2015
It’s hard to conceive of the tension electric grid failure creates in a hospital emergency room. A new program in New York City warns hospitals and gets a microgrid up and running before a blackout occurs.

It’s hard to conceive of the tension electric grid failure creates in a hospital emergency room. The seconds tick by slowly as the medical team wonders if the back-up generator will kick on.

A new program in New York City addresses this problem by giving hospitals and other large energy users a 10-20 minute warning when it looks like the grid is running into trouble.

In anticipation, the facility islands from the grid, and its microgrid automatically begins operating. Doctors and nurses never find themselves in the dark, as they did during Superstorm Sandy.

“That 30 second to one minute that you may be sitting there in a blackout is really, really scary. Seconds really matter in these types of facilities,” said Tom Willie, CEO of Blue Pillar, an energy management and Industrial Internet of Things company.

Blue Pillar offers the emergency response platform as part of Consolidated Edison’s demand-management program.

The program combines the islanding protection of a microgrid with the revenue benefits of conventional demand response.

Here’s how it works. Con Edison sends a signal to a demand response provider that electric grid failure is imminent. The DR provider in turn notifies the hospital via software. Blue Pillar’s program then auto-starts the microgrid generator and flips the facility into island mode.

From the hospital’s perspective the technology keeps the lights on. From the utility’s perspective, the hospital becomes another power plant the grid can rely on as a resource.

“To Consolidated Edison it will look like one massive generation source came on, like Blue Pillar just started a megawatt of generation,” Willie said.

The program is the first in New York City to use emergency demand response and microgrids to avert elecric grid failure in this way, according to Blue Pillar. Other programs may shed load by dimming lights or reducing air conditioning. But the Blue Pillar program doesn’t “require anyone to change their behavior or be hotter in the summer by turning off their AC. These are true generation assets that can be started in an emergency,” Willie said.

When the hospital goes off the grid, it frees up power that the utility can use for other customers. The hospital gets paid by Con Edison for providing this service. The demand response revenue helps the hospital offset the cost of the program, creating a payback as short as 12 to 15 months, according to Willie.

The hospital gets additional benefits, beyond the demand response program, such as advanced warning of equipment maintenance issues.

Two major New York City hospitals have signed on with Blue Pillar — their names have yet to be announced. Blue Pillar also is talking to universities and other large energy users in the city.

“Our priority is meeting the energy needs of New Yorkers safely and reliably,” said John Shipman, manager of the Demand Management Program at Con Edison. “Participation in this program helps us relieve stress on the grid when we need capacity the most. Thanks to the efforts of our market partners like Blue Pillar, connecting generators is now easier than ever and will help New Yorkers stay safe during emergency grid conditions. We encourage other customers to consider joining the program.”

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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, 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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