Saturday, July 30, 2016
VOLUME -27 NUMBER 12
Publication Date: 12/1/2012
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ARCHIVE >  December 2012 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

It Can't Happen Here
Walter Salm, Editor
As I write this, many thousands of people are homeless, having lost their homes to the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, and the death toll has passed 130. Many other thousands of homes that were spared are still without electricity. The deaths were mostly people who thought they were invincible and tried to ride out the storm.

Many of our favorite haunts along the Jersey Shore have disappeared, swept away by the most destructive storm to hit the Northeast in anyone's memory. We sold our house at the Jersey Shore nine years ago, to go on the road as full-time RVers. Family members and friends still there are largely okay, although they were forced to live without electricity for quite a while.

New York City, although hit hard, managed to survive. Enormous amounts of water have now been pumped out of tunnels, subway lines and basements, and most of the city once again has electric power. Two New York City hospitals had to evacuate patients to other hospitals because their emergency generators failed. Then, the emergency generators at Bellevue Hospital also quit, forcing an evacuation of the 300 patients who had not already left that institution. There had been 725 patients when the hurricane first hit. The generators were on the 13th floor, well above the flood waters. But they were fed by fuel pumps in the basement which were soon submerged under flood waters and then they shorted out. Bucket brigades were formed to carry fuel containers up 13 flights of stairs to keep the generators running, while patients were evacuated. Like Julius Caesar's ambition, emergency generators should be made of sterner stuff. They are certainly of little use if they fail during an emergency.

Part of the problem here is that no one ever anticipated an emergency of this magnitude. If a citywide blackout occurred, the hospital generators would take over and run for the duration of the power outage. They always did in the past, so they were thought to be very reliable. But emergency Diesel generators can be very balky, especially if they are not given a test run under load at least once a week. And conditions during the hurricane were far from ordinary.

It's high time that hospitals look more seriously into a far more reliable source of emergency power — the fuel cell generator. Commercially available fuel cell systems are powering banking centers, hospitals, and other essential services worldwide, and have proven their reliability after years of on-the-job performance. Yes, they're very pricey, but there are incentives from the Federal and many state governments. The idea is not to just use it during emergencies, but make it a full-time partner, furnishing power and heat to the hospital. A 400 kilowatt unit from UTC costs over $2 million, but provides continuous, clean electric power while generating 1.7 million Btu per hour of usable heat byproduct. This heat can be used for space heating, hot water and for driving an absorption chiller to provide cooling. This greatly increases the fuel cell's overall efficiency.

Putting that fuel cell power unit on Bellevue Hospital's 13th floor would have kept the hospital running — just as though its Diesels were still running. Ordinary natural gas line pressure would have fed the unit, without worries about shorted out fuel pumps in the basement.

Yes, they're pricey, but there is a definite return on investment; the electricity and heat byproduct is far cheaper than an equivalent purchase from the power utility, and there are some subsidies available to help offset the original equipment cost. The unit doesn't have to power the whole hospital, just 400kW worth, and then take over as an emergency source during power outages, providing for life support systems, some of the elevators, and other emergency needs, just as the Diesel unit would do when working.

In a typical installation for St. Helena Hospital, a 181 bed community hospital in Napa Valley, California, the fuel cell plant delivers 60 percent of the hospital's needs, and meets 50 percent of its space heating and domestic hot water requirements. The use of the fuel cell eliminates more than 530 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Planting a few trees around the unit will take care of the small amount of carbon dioxide byproduct.

Hospitals don't always have the option of evacuating patients to other institutions. Even in New York City, this patient transfer process was difficult at best.

One of the costly lessons learned from Sandy was that the Northeast was woefully ill-prepared for a storm of this magnitude. We've been seeing weather disaster movies for years, but felt safe in the knowledge that they were fiction, but based on some unpleasant truths: the weather is changing, global warming does exist, the icecaps are melting, causing the oceans to rise. With apologies to Sinclair Lewis, we can't go on saying, "It can't happen here." It already has.  

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