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Utility Reliability and Critical Backup Power

As this piece was written, the US and the world were immersed in an epidemic that placed unprecedented patient loads on hospitals and healthcare systems. In addition, storms were sweeping across the eastern U.S, resulting in at least 34 tornados wreaking havoc in the southern and southeastern portions of the country. Strong winds and rains pelted the east and northeast the following day. At 10:17 AM EST on April 13, over one million customers were without power in the eight most-affected states. Another 200,000 were without power in the Mid-Atlantic Region. The Mid-Atlantic and Northeast were experiencing rainstorms with 50+ mile per hour (88+ kilometer per hour) wind gusts and watching for tornados.

The image below shows reported outages on the morning of April 13, 2020. Authorities’ warnings of additional outages seemed more ominous because some medical services are being rendered in newly erected tent hospitals to serve the surge of patients.

While the realization and potential impacts of outages are significant, this situation resulted from a single storm system. Events like these occur over and over throughout a year. Add the impacts from all those weather events, plus outages caused by non-weather factors, and it is easy to see that the cumulative effects of outages are significant to multiple user communities.
Information from public and private sources help clarify the extent of impact. One can scan monthly summaries of outage data at the U.S. Energy Information Administration, either directly on its website or in Table B.1 of its downloadable monthly report, Electric Power Monthly. This source lists outages exceeding 50,000 customers for more than one hour as well as utility network events that may have not resulted in outages. It is based, in turn, on the results of Form OE-417 - Electric Emergency Incident and Disturbance Report, which regulated entities submit to the U.S. Department of Energy. Annual summaries can be downloaded from the Department of Energy. One can view also view quantities of reported real-time customers without power at PowerOutage.us, and can gain insight through S&C Electric’s annual report Entitled 2020 State of Commercial & Industrial Power Reliability Report, which summarizes responses from large commercial and industrial firms about their experiences.

What's the significance of this information? Power outages commonly occur, and thus require appropriate planning as a condition of operation. Is this a new finding? No .... Industry experts have pointed this out all along, and backup power systems have been around nearly as long as electrical grids. What's interesting is that this condition hasn't improved in recent years.

The S&C Report summarizes outage experiences of 255 companies averaging $4 billion in annual revenues (by our rough calculation, nearly 5 percent of the US Gross Domestic Product). It concludes:
  1. Reliability has not improved over the last three years. In 2019, 21 percent of companies experienced outages monthly.
  2. Power disruptions and their associated expenses have significant impact on commercial and industrial companies, leading to a growing need to install alternative reliability solutions.
  3. Companies are willing to pay premiums for guaranteed power.
We invite you to review the document, noting that S&C Electric provides equipment and services primarily to the electrical transmission industry and likely self-funded the report. Nevertheless, each of the findings bears on the backup power community:
  1. At ASCO, we remind people that outages should continue to be viewed as an expected operating condition, and S&C's first conclusion supports this thought.
  2. When power outages do occur, the costs of disruption and recovery are substantial. If the numbers are even half as high as reported, outages of all types are expensive. Consequently, backup power systems provide real value. Nevertheless, the S&C Report addresses commercial and industrial users ... consider also mitigating outages at mission-critical facilities such as large data centers that make modern economic activity possible ... or the present demand for life-saving services at medical facilities that rely on power. Disruptions in power flow can and does have monumental impacts.
  3. The willingness of companies to pay more for reliable power and their willingness to invest in alternatives again speaks to the importance of maintaining power availability. Backup power systems do this.
The power utility industry has provided electricity in the United States for more than a century and is itself a testimony to an enduring legacy of meeting many customer needs. Backup power systems have been around for nearly as long. Because utility reliability seems to have plateaued, utility outages will remain common for the foreseeable future, underscoring the needs to (1) provide backup power at new facilities, and (2) maintain backup power equipment wherever it is necessary for critical services.

This is especially important for mission-critical and life-saving facilities ... including the temporary medical facilities being erected to serve patients during the present epidemic. These generally are one of three types of facilities:
  1. tent structures used to expand hospitals or site supplemental facilities
  2. facilities established in public buildings to handle patients surges
  3. modular medical structures, fitted with backup power equipment, deployed to create new patient or even ICU spaces
Outages can and will occur, even during an epidemic. Consequently, backup power will still be needed by patients, even those managed in facilities that are erected quickly to respond to emergency needs. Backup power solutions are available for each temporary medical application, and can be quickly connected to new installations. That’s why they are needed in new temporary facilities ... to ensure the safety of patients.

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