Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
Hurricane Sandy caused lights to go out across New York City and neighboring areas in October. They stayed on, however, at a number of locations, including Co-op City, a 14,000-unit apartment development in the Bronx, and facilities of New York University, Fairfield University in Connecticut and Princeton University in New Jersey.
The reason those places retained power? All had natural-gas-fueled CHP (for "combined heat and power") systems that remained operational, or largely so, during and after the devastating storm.
That development came as no surprise to the Houston Advanced Research Center staff members who promote and help facilitate expanded use of CHP in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. They do so through their work at the HARC-hosted Gulf Coast Clean Energy Application Center (GC CEAC) of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
More than two years before Sandy struck, GC CEAC's Ross Tomlin wrote a column for the Houston Chronicle just after Hurricane Alex caused extensive power outages in Northeastern Mexico and South Texas in 2010. Tomlin detailed CHP's promise for helping to withstand hurricanes and other extreme weather events with electric power still flowing.
He wrote: "The arrival of Hurricane Alex heralds another glaring reminder of Texas' susceptibility to widespread and prolonged power outages. … Because CHP relies on natural gas delivered through underground pipelines, adopters can weather just about any storm."
CHP, a technology also called cogeneration, involves the production of both electricity (or mechanical power) and useful thermal energy (heating and/or cooling) at the same time, from the same energy source.
Gavin Dillingham, who recently joined HARC to lead its GC CEAC activities, sees CHP's performance during Sandy as an important illustration of one of a number of advantages that it offers.
"Cogeneration provides a significant environmental and economic benefit. Not only does cogeneration provide both electricity and heat more efficiently than traditional sources, it keeps the lights on during natural disasters," Dillingham said. He was formerly responsible for the energy efficiency and renewable energy programs at the City of Houston and the Houston Independent School District.
"The immense benefit of CHP was wonderfully demonstrated during Hurricane Sandy where many facilities with CHP kept the lights and heat on during and after the storm," he added.
In August, President Barack Obama issued an executive order instructing DOE and several other federal agencies and offices to coordinate efforts toward a national goal of "deploying 40 gigawatts of new, cost effective industrial CHP in the United States by the end of 2020."
This "is definitely a stretch goal, but it is a goal that needs to be pursued," Dillingham said.
"The federal government has put a tremendous amount of technical resources toward this technology and has invested significantly in promoting CHP," he added. "This investment has helped to make CHP an economically viable option, particularly when taking into account the low cost of natural gas."
Recent regional progress toward the 40-gigawatts goal includes the Louisiana legislature's passage of a resolution that will urge state agencies to adopt rules and regulations "to ensure high levels of energy security in critical government facilities through implementation of on-site combined heat and power systems."
Industry stakeholders allied with GC CEAC in Louisiana helped win passage of the resolution, which was modeled after a similar measure by Texas lawmakers in 2009.
GC CEAC’s Louisiana and other partners participated recently, along with the GC CEAC staff, in CHP2012, the Combined Heat and Power Conference and Trade Show in Houston. The event, unique in the nation, has been co-hosted by GC CEAC in the past. This year's meeting served as a venue for the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston to explain its decision, based on the school's painful experience during and after Hurricane Ike in 2008, to pursue installation of CHP on the campus.
Ike, whose flooding brought catastrophic damage to much of the island city, imposed $14 million in "stabilization costs" at UTMB, caused the closure of its hospital for 90 days and deprived the institution of $2 million in business revenue per day, conference attendees were told.