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Echuca Regional Health is widely recognised throughout the region for its holistic and progressive approach to energy management and sustainability, with a proven innovation track record.
The hospital features one of the largest solar thermal arrays in Australia, providing not only heating but also absorption cooling to the hospital’s high efficiency HVAC system, 1.2MW of thermal energy storage which is utilised for peak demand management, and a new 500kW solar photovoltaic array that is currently underway.
Echuca Regional Health has also been utilising its backup generators to participate in a Virtual Power Plant (VPP) – a collection of distributed energy assets including backup generators, batteries, and flexible loads that work together to provide additional dispatchable capacity to the grid – since 2017.
VPPs are called into operation for short durations when large power stations suddenly fail, when demand outweighs supply, or when climatic events threaten grid stability.
Mark Hooper, Executive Project Manager at Echuca Regional Health said VPP participation is a natural fit for the hospital, helping it to enhance site resilience in the face of a weakening grid, and earn a significant new revenue stream which can be reinvested into backup power infrastructure to further enhance system reliability.
Protection from unplanned grid disruptions
The rapid uptake of renewable energy and retirement of coal fired power plants is impacting grid reliability.
Now more than ever, the grid needs additional flexible capacity from alternate sources such as VPPs to help stabilise the grid, reduce power prices and prevent broader power outages.
For hospitals, VPP participation provides a unique benefit of advanced notification of potential grid disruptions.
Hooper said, “We expect the grid to be reliable and clearly it’s not. We need to ensure our facility is available for its core purpose of providing primary healthcare 24-7-365.
With participation we get advanced warning of instability on the grid, which is an advantage because it means we can prepare for a grid event and don’t have to experience a break in power if an outage occurs.”
“We view VPP participation as another way of keeping our patients safe, because there’s not going to be an interruption to power if we know that there’s a response request coming. It allows us to fire up our generator and get off the grid.”
“We have full site generator backup for the hospital and can synchronise with the grid to take ourselves offline. This means we have a seamless transition where the site doesn’t experience unscheduled interruptions.
The fact that joining the VPP allows us to also get paid to respond to those events, gives us a win-win scenario for our facility,” he said.
Achieving a new standard of emergency preparation
By participating in a VPP, Echuca Regional Health is able to regularly test its backup power capabilities at times and in conditions when grid emergencies are most likely to occur, providing the truest test of emergency preparedness and resilience to grid disruptions.
“A benefit is that you run your generators during a time where you’re likely running a hefty load anyway. But, the key is, you’re being asked to run your generator when the grid still has power. It’s an excellent tool for testing and ironing out any assumptions that are made around that reliability at a time where you wouldn’t normally run your generator,” said Hooper.
“The reality is that if the grid fails, it’s probably going to be on a hot summer day right when you don’t want it to. VPP participation gives us the strength of conviction to know on a hot day where we’re running a high load, that our generators can do the job.”
“There have been events this year where through this program we’ve found some issues we didn’t know existed, and the consequence has been far less than had it occurred at a time when we’d lost power.
“So, ironing out those problems means that when you don’t have power and you need to run your generator sets, you know the resilience is there, because you’ve got all those issues sorted.
“We’re required to run our generators on load anyway, so if we’re doing it already as part of VPP participation, then we can then defer our weekly test, because we’ve already proven that we’ve met the requirements of the Australian standards to test them on load. Another benefit to us is that we also get a payment,” Hooper added.
Protecting sensitive equipment
VPPs respond quickly to deviations in the grid’s frequency when a large power station or transmission network suddenly fail, to prevent cascading grid failures.
Echuca Regional Health participate in this program, which also helps the hospital to protect its sensitive equipment.
“When there’s a frequency event, the VPP sends a signal which automatically switches the site straight to our generator.
“We have a lot of electronic equipment that’s sensitive to things like voltage spikes and frequency deviations. If the grid doesn’t meet the parameters it’s supposed to, then we trip off.
“This helps us because we don’t have groups of interruptions that destroy our sensitive electronic equipment, by short sharp interruptions to power.
“The hospital was already doing something similar, so it made sense to join this program and get paid for it,” Hooper said.
A new revenue stream to further enhance reliability
Hooper says that VPP participation became a hand-in-glove approach for the hospital, where they could be paid for something they were already doing, which could be reinvested into ensuring they have best-in-class redundancy systems.
“Our business model is based on continual improvement, and the one element that we always run short of is cash.
“We generate revenue, and engineering departments are not generally revenue generators. It’s nice to get revenue out of assets we already have in use.
“Participation allows us to meet all elements of continuous improvement, and generate cash, in a really nicely rounded program,” Hooper said.
The hospital is now looking to further increase its demand response capacity by seeking approval from its network service provider to export the site’s excess generation capacity to the grid during VPP events.
“We’re currently working on the grid export program which will be a real benefit for us. Exporting our generation capacity to the grid will create an income stream to support those assets.
“We’re driven towards it because we have certain things we’re mandated to do with running our generators – so if we’re doing that anyway, and can be paid for it, we’ll certainly look at it as an opportunity,” Hooper said.
VPPs are a win-win for hospitals and our transforming grid
Echuca Regional Health is providing what the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has stated is an urgent need for new forms of capacity on the power grid.
VPPs are an obvious and cost-effective solution to this problem, and using existing assets means they can be built quickly, providing for a more efficient use of resources and avoiding the need to build expensive new gas peaking power plants.
Hooper says: “We’re a small user, the VPP is about a lot of one percenters coming together to help out. I’ve been encouraging my colleagues to participate because most of our sites have generators and have to test them anyway, so we might as well run them and get paid for it.”
“The benefit adds to other factors around resilience and knowing your systems work, and you can use the income to improve your systems and other physical elements to ensure you’ve got a reliable generation set.”
“I know some have used their income to increase the size of their fuel supply.
Others have used it to install automatic switching or upgrade their PLCs. It’s a win-win because the reliable capacity that we can provide to the grid is improved by putting the money back into improving the reliability of our own backup systems,” Hooper said.