Microgrids: Achieving Reliable Power for Our Most Critical Facilities

Dec. 16, 2019
As recent events have shown, power outages don’t discriminate, which puts hospitals and their patients at grave risk. Schneider Electric’s Andy Haun explores how healthcare microgrids can improve energy resiliency for medical facilities. 

Schneider Electric’s Andy Haun explores how healthcare microgrids can improve energy resiliency for hospitals and other medical facilities.

Hospitals are among the most critical facilities for ongoing public health and emergency response. As recent events have shown, power outages don’t discriminate, which puts hospitals and their patients at grave risk. At the same time, hospitals are energy intensive, using 2.5 times more energy than similar size buildings, adding significant expense to a model that is under constant pressure to reduce costs. To meet these needs, hospitals are exploring new energy models and advanced technologies, including microgrids. And there’s never been a better time to do so.

The evolving healthcare infrastructure

Over the last decade, there has been a trend in the healthcare industry to become more effective in delivering its services in order to reduce the cost of care. This effort often focuses on reducing inefficiencies in workflow processes, building systems and infrastructure. Chief among these initiatives is improving energy efficiency.

Hospitals must care for patients 24/7, which creates greater demand for lighting, heat and cooling, hot water and steam for equipment sterilization, and refrigeration for temperature sensitive or perishable medications. This demand means hospitals use more than double the energy compared to commercial buildings of the same size.

Aside from the obvious need for reduced energy consumption, there are several other challenges driving the need for energy transformation in healthcare.

  1. Budgetary pressures. There is growing demand for healthcare organizations to expand their ambulatory care facilities and add more advanced, energy-intensive diagnostic equipment, which makes the cost of energy a big priority for administrators already tasked with cost management.
  2. Meeting sustainability goals. In the U.S., healthcare emissions represent 10% of national emissions, with hospitals representing 39% of that total. Reducing their carbon footprint is a growing objective for healthcare facilities. In addition to meeting regulatory requirements, minimizing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can also help achieve green building certification and create a “greener” image in the community.
  3. Ensuring patient safety and services. Continuous, reliable and available power is vital to ensure life-sustaining equipment is operational. Extreme weather and aging infrastructure mean grid stability issues are becoming increasingly common in many regions. Such issues can impact power supply and distribution, leading to poor power quality and reliability, damage to costly power-sensitive equipment and increased patient risk. While most hospitals have emergency backup generation in place, often as diesel-powered generation, this form of generation is under attack for its sustainable, long-term viability.

As these challenges become more prominent, healthcare facilities are tackling the energy problem at the source, embracing distributed energy resources (DERs), renewable generation and microgrids to transform their energy infrastructure.

The time is right for microgrid

While microgrid technology has been around for some time now, it has recently achieved a high level of maturity. Today’s microgrids take advantage of the IIoT to make energy choices based on capabilities like forecasting weather and load optimization. This enables the microgrid system to both provide power resilience and improved energy performance over the long term.

For hospitals, a modern microgrid solution intelligently coordinates onsite, distributed energy generation assets to optimize costs and maintain power stability, including the option to ‘island’ from the utility grid to avoid exposure to outages or disturbances. Linking intelligent control to a variety of DER means the microgrid controller can automatically manage disconnection from the grid and coordinate local generation assets to support critical loads in the event of an outage

Hospitals can also benefit by connecting the microgrid control system to the hospital’s building management system (BMS) and energy management system (EMS) to enable the ‘flexibility’ of DER, including non-critical controllable loads (e.g. electrical vehicle charging stations), to be fully exercised to optimize costs and reliability.

Additionally, modern microgrid technology benefits hospitals in other important ways, including:

Enhanced resilience

In the face of extreme weather, wildfire and other emergencies, hospitals and outpatient care facilities face the same risks as other facilities. But in a healthcare setting, reliable power is a lifesaving necessity, and its loss is a threat to patient safety.

Most hospitals deploy some form of resilient backup, typically with an emergency power supply system (EPSS) using one or more diesel generators, that supplies power to a portion of the facility. This backup generation is intended to ensure the operation of the most critical functions of the facility for a specified length of time. However, due to fuel storage limitations, this may not cover all outage durations.

While no one wants to assume the worst, when it comes to patient safety, we’d be remiss not to. It’s incumbent on hospital administrators to plan for the worst-case scenario, and that includes power loss of several days at minimum.

A microgrid with multiple DER generation can ensure power availability for a lengthy duration of time, perhaps indefinitely. In the event of a main grid interruption, the microgrid will automatically island from the grid to protect the quality of power in the facility, reconnect to on-site generation to continuously serve all critical loads and restore additional essential loads based on generation capacity.

Healthcare organizations are undergoing a transformation as they seek to ensure power availability, overcome budgetary pressures and meet sustainability goals.

And modern microgrid technology now provides predictive capabilities that allow the system to monitor approaching weather conditions based on weather data and alerts. The microgrid can preemptively prepare to island from the grid prior to a major storm, engage emergency power systems and provide time for hospital personnel to take necessary, precautionary measures.

Cost savings

Beyond helping a hospital improve resilience against the possibility of a grid blackout or power instability, a microgrid can optimize energy costs and maximize the use of renewable energy.

  • Renewables – As noted above, hospitals are intense energy consumers and generate significant carbon emissions. By using multiple energy resources and smart controls, healthcare facilities can reduce their carbon footprint while ensuring adequate power quality and operational continuity needed by sensitive equipment. There are several renewable generation options worth considering, including solar, wind and biomass energy.
  • Fuel cells – Fuel cells are quickly gaining market share for their flexibility and low emissions. They can be used for primary power, backup power or combined heat and power (CHP) applications. They also have a smaller and lighter form factor than competing alternatives and can be used outside, inside or on roofs. Depending on financing, incentives and fuel costs, fuel cells also deliver significant energy savings.
  • Energy storage – As part of an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system, energy storage can help support resilience against a utility grid outage. Additionally, standalone Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) can maximize the value of renewable energy generation by saving excess energy for use when power failures occur. Finally, stored energy can be dispatched for peak demand management and time of use optimization, helping reduce the amount of energy consumed from the utility grid during periods of high energy cost.

Healthcare organizations are undergoing a transformation as they seek to ensure power availability, overcome budgetary pressures and meet sustainability goals. Modern microgrid technology helps healthcare facilities manage a variety of onsite distributed energy generation assets to maximize the use of renewables and optimize costs, while enhancing resilience and increasing uptime.  For hospitals, microgrids enable a more sustainable environment and reliable patient care, providing value every day, not just when the power goes out.

Andy Haun is senior vice president and chief technology officer, microgrids, at Schneider Electric

To explore healthcare microgrids further, see the latest Microgrid Knowledge special report that explores a more reliable and lower-cost energy option for hospitals. 

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