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Critical power: the huge cost of NOT keeping the lights on

Is keeping the power on sufficiently prioritised for the UK’s owners and operators of large infrastructure such as hospitals, airports and railway stations?

Background

For those of you familiar with my background keeping the power on, ensuring redundancy, keeping revenues flowing was always a given and a high priority. This was the world of connecting multi-billion pound offshore wind farms where failure to transmit power was not an option and where stranded assets made investors weak at the knees. More recently I’ve moved back to dry land, to the world of major public infrastructure, hospitals, airports, campuses and the like. The question I’ve been asking myself is, “how does it feel compared to the world of large scale generation? Is what Siemens would call “critical power” treated as a genuine priority or risk?”

Challenges

Why the hurry? What’s the worst that can happen?

A life and death situation.

So how is the conversation on critical power different when we talk about critical power in relation to our hospitals given we are, in the worst-case scenario – talking about the difference between life and death. This puts losing the link to an offshore wind farm into real perspective. 24/7 reliable power is crucial to critical medical areas like intensive care, operating theatres and essential systems like heating and cooling. These are the areas we would immediately think about when we consider a hospital’s power supply.

There’s also the effect a blackout or brownout can have on hospital’s operating systems like patient booking and parking that can cause chaos with knock on effects lasting days if not weeks. And what about the potential loss of revenue for the hospital’s retail areas (noting this is massive for an Airport and increasingly large Rail interchanges) and the impact on its diagnostic and IT systems? Worse still, there is real opportunity for lasting reputational damage.

New challenges are being placed constantly on a hospital’s onsite grid as it incorporates generation technologies such as solar PV and storage as well as having to cope with increased demand, for example, from building expansion and electrical vehicle charging.

As demand increases for system interconnectivity so does the urgency for a fast, reliable power source.

Taking power to the skies.

Airports are hugely complex systems of traffic streams: humans (thousands of), vehicles, airport transport, aeroplanes and logistics in general. A complex group of spaces: retail, parking, arrivals, departures, security, immigration. Much like our healthcare system, many airports operate on the edge of capacity so the the cost of prolonged power failure to our airports is potentially enormous and immediate with lasting consquences.

Of course, the impact of any potential disruption caused by power failure depends on the duration of the blackout. A power loss of a few minutes is not going to be too disastrous – more an inconvenience. A sustained power loss could look more like this:

  • Baggage-claim system down
  • Inability to load or unload aircraft
  • Aircraft unable to land or take off
  • Security systems inoperative
  • Flights diverted
  • Areas congested with passengers unable to leave
  • Eventual complete evacuation

Some airports may suffer severe regulatory fines, others may suffer a disastrous loss of revenue. The need to ensure power can be reinstated quickly and efficiently is vital and inherently lies with a system design that is optimal from the outset .

Leaving people high and dry.

Finally, let’s take high-rise buildings as our last worst-case scenario. Many of the UK’s high-rise buildings are now multi-use. There might be underground parking, lower level retail outlets, a gym, middle floors operating as a hotel and the top twenty floors might be residential. There also may be vulnerable people living on those residential floors who depend on the use of lifts and who need an efficient heating and cooling system.

What would prolonged power loss mean in this environment? As with our airports and hospitals there is risk first and foremost to human safety and a threat to their security. Again, there is potential for large loss of revenue and the inconvenience of not being able to leave the building.

And yet again, there’s that need for super-fast remobilisation.

Integrated infrastructure provides an opportunity to resolve critical power issues

Findings

The consequences of losing power and having unreliable power system seem pretty evident and yet when it comes to “keeping the lights on” there’s a pretty mixed bag out there in terms of how seriously people take this risk. Some industries, notably manufacturing, quantify the cost of a loss of power to the second and nth degree and their investment matches this. Others quite frankly have other priorities to worry about such as budget constraints, some a lack of expertise to make a judgement call on the resiliency of a power system, others it’s a case of if it aint broke don’t fix it or what we don’t know we don’t need to worry about. Typical examples of the latter are consideration of the stability and / or capcity of local distribution network but also parts of the on site system that you can’t readily inspect such as power cables.

Recommendations

Solvable and preventable.

Of course it needn’t be this way. Siemens has the answers and can take its portfolio of capability (that adds a level of sophistication to a system to significantly reduce risk) and combines it with what customers need:

  • Reliability of power
  • Quality of power and usage
  • Cost-effectiveness
  • Integration

For operators or managers of large infrastructure, the principal priority is having a reliable and resilient power supply. Naturally, what they want is to avoid blackouts and stabilise brownouts with a system that has fast load management and 24-hour service and support.

For example, in response to this demand Siemens recently designed a system for a hospital that vastly reduces the risk of power outages through super-fast load shedding and that can manage back-up generators to restore all critical power loads in less than one minute.

Power quality and energy transparency help to overcome capability limits such as aging equipment. Predictive maintenance techniques incorporated in Siemens Power Management System increases the lifespan of essential equipment and the potential to save costs. Power quality can be crucial to protecting sensitive and expensive equipment, so understanding a power supply system and how to optimise it reduces time and cost implications.

We also recognise the issue of budgets and priorities so what we also offer customer’s is an affordable solution – and who doesn’t like to save money? We allow the customer to direct funds where they are most needed by reduce operating expenditure and identifying elements within the system where risk of failure can be reduced. In a nutshell – we aim to turn a problem (e.g. old and failing systems) into an opportunity (e.g. energy efficiency and resilience).

How we create that opportunity is by recognising that the power system can no longer be treated as a standalone system. We know that a smart building is created by connecting its devices and developing an integrated infrastructure that includes people movement, fire and security systems, building automation & control, power supply, and onsite energy generation plus what we call convergent technologies such as transportation especially now we have to factor in increasing electrification of vehicles. And that is what our customers look to us for: the successful convergence of technology that provides them with the flexibility to add additional technologies in the future whilst enhancing the resiliency of the power system.

How does Siemens keep the lights on?

Each case will be different of course. Where our value lies is by with working with customers at the earliest stages of consultancy to help specify design. Early involvement means we ensure the system is more sophisticated and precisely fit-for-purpose.

Equally, if the building is established, a full audit of its current assets including a system optimisation study is carried out to provide an understanding of the customer’s drivers so we can place them at the heart of the solution we design for them.

We believe that to develop a tailored solution that ensures power management, control and visibility, we need to examine the whole system and all its parts, but most importantly, listen to what the customer’s requirements are. 

So maybe critical power isn’t always top of the agenda for major infratsructure but that’s often down to competing priorities or perception of complexity. The good news is that the solutions are out there and we can help.

The consequences of losing power and having an unreliable power system seem pretty evident and yet when it comes to “keeping the lights on” there’s a pretty mixed bag out there in terms of how seriously people take this risk

Steve Aughton, Head of Major Infrastructure and Campuses