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Planning for Emergency Power

By John Swanson


Permanent backup, Mobile power, Sourcing equipment, Planning in context, Fine-tuning the plan.

Electricity is never more precious or more scarce than after a disaster. Lights are out, telephones disabled, businesses shut down. People may need food, water, heat and medical attention. There can be no real recovery without power, yet no one can predict when utility service will come back.

Today, backup power plays a critical role in recovery from all manner of disasters. Permanent backup systems can sustain facilities that safeguard public health, safety and welfare, even through extended utility outages. On a wider scale, mobile generators of all sizes can help life return to normal by powering schools, stores, offices, factories and homes while rebuilding goes forward and the utility restores the grid.

Especially in the early stages, the speed of recovery depends on how well local authorities and private enterprises have planned for emergency power. Provision for electricity should comprise much more than a few sentences in a disaster management plan. Procedures should be spelled out meticulously and as completely as possible.

Global supplies of mobile generator sets have roughly quadrupled in the past ten years. Thus, those who plan effectively can readily secure almost any amount of short-term emergency power necessary from units suitable for small offices or homes to 2-megawatt power modules able to supply large buildings.

Planning cannot prepare for every contingency, but it can ensure that emergency personnel know in advance what essential facilities and services will need power, how much power, and how to ensure its availability.

Expecting the unpredictable
Emergency response experts advise against trying to plan for a specific event, such as a wind storm, fire or flood. Instead, they recommend looking at the common results of any disaster. Significant among these is loss of electric power.

Extended power failures have many causes, some natural and others manmade, some predictable and others difficult even to imagine. For example, few could have foreseen the April 1992 flood that shut down utility power for weeks in the heart of Chicago, U.S.A. The flood began when construction workers installing support pillars in the Chicago River bottom punctured the roof of a freight tunnel beneath the city. Water soon flooded the entire system of tunnels and made its way into building basements that housed electrical systems.

Similarly, few could have predicted the extended power outages in central Auckland, New Zealand, that began in February 1998. There, four main power cables serving the city failed because of overload. The outages affected some 50,000 inner-city workers and 6,000 residents and also threatened butter, meat and other perishables in thousands of refrigerated containers awaiting shipment from the city's port at the peak of the export season.

In September 1998, weather forecasters predicted the assault of Hurricane Georges on Caribbean islands, but not the extent of the destruction. Puerto Rico and other islands lost all electric power.

Mobile diesel-powered generator sets were essential to recovery from all these events. In each case, demand for generators overwhelmed local supplies, and units were shipped in from considerable distances. New Zealand and the Caribbean islands received units on shipboard and by airlift. In any such instance, the logistics of supplying power are difficult, but an effective plan makes the process easier and recovery faster.

permanent backup

The first imperative in emergency power planning is to outfit essential facilities with permanent backup power, and to make sure existing backup equipment is properly sized and in good repair. Essential post-disaster services include:

At minimum, backup systems should be sized to carry critical loads defined as the power required to deliver all the facility's necessary public services. Some facilities, such as wastewater treatment plants and hospitals, are so important that backup systems sized for full load deserve serious consideration.

All backup systems should be covered by a complete and consistent planned maintenance program that includes regular inspection and operational testing.

mobile power

Because a major storm or flood can do severe damage, it is wise to plan for scenarios in which even backup power systems fail. Such was the case during the 1992 flood in chicago, where many backup systems were installed in basements and sub-basements that filled with water.

Mobile power equipment should be sized in the same manner as permanent backup power. Other considerations for each facility include:

  • location. space must be available for parking the generators outside the buildings. if a facility has a large power requirement but lacks space to install a large power module (up to 8 feet wide by 40 feet long), two or more smaller units will perform just as effectively.
  • accessory requirements. cable must be provided to connect the generators to the building's electrical system. transformers, load banks, bus bars, distribution panels, feeder panels, fuses, outlets, load centers and other accessories may also be necessary.
  • fuel requirements. during an emergency, diesel fuel supplies and delivery may be sporadic. a fuel tank with capacity for at least 24 hours of run time is advisable.
  • staffing requirements. if on-staff personnel are not experienced with power-generation equipment, it is necessary to arrange for professional assistance to install and operate the mobile units.
  • sourcing equipment

    Once power equipment and staffing needs have been determined, the next step is to identify and interview suppliers. Often, the same supplier will offer permanent backup systems for sale or lease, as well as mobile power units for rent. Supplier selection criteria should include:

      Inventory. the supplier should have all necessary equipment in stock, generator sets and accessories, or be willing to commit to getting it on demand. Suppliers who do not have the equipment in-country must have the capability to import it in an emergency.

      Service and support. the supplier should be willing to deliver the power generating sets and, in some cases, additional equipment like power cable, transformers, etc. In addition, suppliers should train local personnel in the equipment operation or, if necessary, provide staff for operation, service and maintenance.

      Location. at minimum, the supplier should be strategically located to serve major population centers. The ideal supplier will have multiple locations from which to deliver equipment and dispatch support staff.

      Experience. longevity in business can be a good indicator of a supplier's reliability. Suppliers should be willing to discuss their track record for delivering and installing equipment under tight deadlines, as well as their experience in emergencies. Reputable suppliers will provide references.

      Terms. when renting power units for emergencies, it is not always possible to secure an absolute guarantee of equipment availability. However, some suppliers offer contracts that provide a "right of first acceptance." in this arrangement, a party pays the supplier a retainer fee for an allocation of specified equipment. In return, the supplier agrees to not release that equipment to another entity without the first party's consent.

    planning in context

    Arranging for equipment is only the first step in emergency power planning. The true test of a plan is how well it functions in practice. A power outage alone can create major logistical challenges as public agencies and businesses rush to provide temporary power. For example, an outage affecting a large city, such as auckland or chicago, can require the shipment of hundreds or even thousands of mobile generators within days.

    The challenges multiply after a natural disaster, as delivery of power must coordinate with distribution of medical supplies, food, clothing, household goods and building materials.

    An effective plan assigns priorities to all major goods and services and their delivery. In a world that increasingly depends on electricity, a strong argument can be made for giving top priority to mobile power. The sooner power is installed, the more efficiently all other materials and services can be delivered. Emergency planners must ensure that power for all purposes, public and private, arrives where it is needed as quickly as possible.

    Puerto rico's experience after hurricane georges is instructive. Soon after the storm, relief efforts were stalled by trees and power lines blocking roads and preventing movement of people and supplies. In addition, the storm blew down one of four large cranes in the port at san juan, creating a bottleneck in off-loading emergency generators arriving on shipboard.

    These experiences suggest that plans carefully address the mechanics of power delivery, especially when equipment must come from outside the country. For example, provision should be made for staging areas for generators at airports and seaports. On-the-spot decisions may need to be made about whether to ship units from overseas on containerized ships (lower cost), or roll-on roll-off ships (able to be unloaded even if port lifting equipment has been damaged).

    Not all barriers are physical. Slowdowns in customs can significantly delay delivery of power. Planners should consider proposing special legislation to allow generators to be imported in emergencies. Provisions allowing temporary, duty-free imports of equipment can greatly expedite delivery. Contacts established with freight companies during the planning phase may increase availability of ships or air transports when a disaster occurs.

    Finances are another stumbling block to be avoided. As part of planning, emergency management agencies should agree on payment terms with mobile power suppliers. This may include issuing a letter of credit from a financial institution or budgeting the necessary funds.

    fine-tuning the plan

    An emergency plan is a living document, it should be revisited and updated periodically. The plan should also be tested through simulation drills. In one common drill, participants are presented with a specific scenario and asked to respond to it according to the procedures outlined in the plan.

    It can be useful to involve the local electric utility in drills. During an actual emergency, coordination between utility staff and emergency personnel can improve the utilization of mobile equipment. For example, if emergency personnel know when utility power is about to be restored in a given sector, they can plan to release mobile power units to other areas where they are needed.

    Disasters are by definition unpredictable, even the best plan will not eliminate the need for good judgment and resourcefulness. However, a plan immediately moves disaster recovery several steps forward. It makes critical actions nearly automatic and provides a basis for sound decision making as the event unfolds.

    John swanson is international rental manager within the electric power generation product group of caterpillar, inc., based in mossville, illinois, usa. He oversees and coordinates a global network of caterpillar dealers supplying mobile generator sets, accessories and technical support for emergency power restoration.
    (a special thanks to cat rental power for letting us reprint this article.)

    engine products division
    p.o. box 610
    mossville, il 61552-0610


    101 fabick drive, fenton, mo   63026

    (636) 349-5500  fax (636) 349-5951

    For emergency and backup electrical power generation sales and service.