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Changing the Face of Disaster Response

Deploying advanced mobile hybrid microgrid power systems is an achievable solution now to improve resiliency in the wake of natural and manmade disaster events.


 By Igor Stamenkovic, Ph.D., James E. Dankowski, M.SAME, and The Honorable William C. Anderson, Esq., M.SAME


Katrina response


An Air Force Reserve Command para-rescueman from the 304th Rescue Squadron scans a flooded New Orleans neighborhood for survivors following Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. The consequences of failing to maintain resilient power generation and transmission systems were significant in the aftermath of Katrina. The Louisiana Superdome, where tens of thousands were forced to seek refuge, experienced failing air conditioning, lighting and plumbing, all a result of insufficient energy infrastructure. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY MASTER SGT. BILL HUNTINGTON 


The stage is set. We will have little to no forewarning as to the location, scope or duration of the devastation brought about by a significant natural or manmade event. But, one thing is for certain: Emergency responders, public safety personnel, servicemen and women, and scores of volunteers will be called upon to secure, stabilize and eventually recover vast areas of real estate and the critical services upon which we rely to conduct our daily lives.

The initial success, or lack thereof, of recovery efforts in the first hours and days after will have a profound impact on the ability to preserve life and property.

Advanced preparation and planning go a long way towards successfully respond­ing to any catastrophic event. Unless our emergency response teams have the right tools to quickly restore services to effected communities, that success will be severely impacted. And the reality is that in terms of restoration of electric service to affected areas, the tools we currently provide our responders are not up to task.



The backbone supporting any recovery effort is electrical power. Secure local power generation and dedicated electrical distribution infrastructure (microgrids) specifically designed to survive catastrophic events represents the ultimate answer. Yet, it will take decades to design and install microgrids across the country to support all identified critical infrastructure.

In the meantime, without a change in mindset and the introduction of new tech­nologies, we will continue to respond to short-term restoration of electrical power the same way we have for decades. We will rely on fixed and portable small-scale backup generators to do a job much better suited for more robust and larger solution sets.

The process of responding to and fully recovering from a catastrophic event normally is divided into three distinct phases. The first is emergency response —the time in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, typically the first hours or days, perhaps up to one week. The second phase is recovery, typically the one-year period following a disaster. This is where the focus is putting a disaster-stricken community back together as life returns to a somewhat normal state. Reconstruction is the final stage in the disaster cycle—and may occur from one year after the disaster to many years hence. This stage includes restoring community services, finding assistance, locating permanent housing, and resuming a more normal life and routine.

The first stage of response represents the time when conditions are most dire for survivors and where the speed and effective­ness of the response represents the difference between life and death. Restoring electrical power across the largest possible footprint in the shortest time dramatically increases the likelihood that survivors will make it through those first days and weeks. As the process moves to the second stage, recov­ery will be accelerated by rapidly restoring electrical power to significant portions of the affected area—long before the complete restoration of grid-provided electricity.

A new approach to the restoration of significant power to impacted areas in an expedited fashion is required. Fortunately, the technology to implement a new approach is ready today. Much of the research has been accomplished over the past few years through energy surety/microgrid demon­stration projects.



Improving the resilience of impacted power generation, transmission and distribution systems can be defined as decreasing the downtime of nonfunctional power systems after the disaster, whether that disaster is a natural occurrence or manmade event. While this definition is relatively easy to understand, the impacts of failing to accomplish this critical task in short order are best illustrated by example. And, there is no starker example of the devastating consequences of failing on this front than what was experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

When disasters strike, often the heroic attempts of relief workers run head on into significant logistical challenges. Electricity can be scarce, generators tough to acquire, and fuel supplies for those generators uncertain at best. Lack of power limits water pumping and purification, waste treatment, sterilization of medical imple­ments, recharging of communication devices, and a host of other issues. Those with limited means to flee are forced to rely on shelters to sustain their lives. Estimates vary, but likely tens of thousands of New Orleans residents and visitors were forced to seek refuge in the Superdome, a facility then designated as a shelter of last resort.

Katrina left most of southern Louisiana without power, including the central business district of New Orleans where the Superdome is. The air conditioning in the arena failed immediately. Some lighting was maintained via an emergency generator, but that unit quickly failed. Facility engineers worked feverishly to keep a backup genera­tor running, but that generator faltered. The city’s water supply held on a bit longer before finally giving out. Toilets became inoperable and began to overflow.

The physical suffering of those who sought shelter was overwhelming. Unfortunately, those seeking refuge had to contend with another significant challenge. These conditions presented the perfect environment to commit a crime, and the worst environment to report a crime.

In fact, those who sought shelter in the Superdome were exposed to rampant crime ranging from theft to reports of horrific violent acts. It was reported that the police and the military stationed at the Superdome did their best to maintain order. The condi­tions made that task one of futility.

The root cause of the cascading effect that created these conditions can be traced to one failure: the loss of electrical power to the Superdome and facilities that provided other services necessary to maintain that structure as a viable “island of refuge.” In 2005 the technology available to provide energy resiliency revolved around smaller emergency and backup electrical genera­tion sets. Today we have a better answer.



A new solution set for increasing resil­ience in the face of a disaster requires a shift in thinking from a mindset of utilizing temporary standby power generation equip­ment dedicated to a single user to a solu­tion that provides critical power to multiple users from one source. At the center of this approach is advanced hybrid mobile power systems that can be deployed easily and rapidly. These systems would leverage exist­ing energy assets that relief workers find when they reach an impacted area. The Department of Defense over the last few years has supported a number of microgrid demonstration projects. The lessons learned, when combined with efforts undertaken by the private sector, provide the building blocks to design and construct a new class of advanced hybrid mobile power generation and distribution systems that will assist in providing the level of critical power truly necessary to support disaster response efforts.



The first stage of response represents the time when conditions are most dire for survivors and where the speed and effectiveness of the response represents the difference between life and death. Restoring electrical power across the largest possible footprint in the shortest time dramatically increases the likelihood that survivors will make it through those first days and weeks.



This could be accomplished through a unique and proven approach that delivers electrical power by tying into the surviving components of existing electrical grid in the impacted area. The utility grid operates at higher voltages (23-, 13.8-, 13.2- or 4-kV) necessary to manage and move the large quantities of power necessary to support larger islands of refuge as well as critical utilities like water/wastewater. Generators used for backup power (generally operating at 480-V or 208-V) cannot directly feed into existing utility power grids. Therefore, to appropriately leverage these generators in an integrated system, electrical power coordination is required. In addition to the ability to draw from multiple generation sources, these systems will provide the key features of source management, distribu­tion protection and load management.

Systems now can be completely self-contained and readily transportable, utilizing a plug-and-play configuration for quick commissioning by local electricians and utility workers. These sophisticated systems can be designed to integrate mobile distributed generation control, renewable energy generation sources, energy storage, distribution bus protection and load.

The functionality these systems offer can maximize the effectiveness of power deliv­ery and control after a catastrophic event. 

  • Direct start-stop of generation assets for efficient use of limited fuel sources.
  • Comprehensive load management for continued safe power distribution by shedding loads based on priority, resource availability and reserve capacity. (Loads can be shed and recovered according to contingency type, disruption duration and online generation capacity.)
  • Communication capability to ensure energy storage components have the capacity and state of health to provide power to the microgrid for transient mitigation, peak shaving of genera­tion assets and stand-alone operation. (Additionally the energy storage can be managed as a load during charging to ensure the demand is appropriate for maximum generator efficiency.)

Such an approach requires a device to seamlessly integrate various power genera­tion assets and storage devices, connect to available surviving grid infrastructure, and effectively manage load requirements to safely provide power as needed to support recovery efforts. The Modular Integrated Transportable Substation (MITS) can serve as a “universal adapter” to integrate into any grid (utility or commercial).

The MITS system facilitates a speedy connection to the grid and the restoration of power in a safe, temporary manner. The mobility of this solution allows for flexibility in delivering electrical power to affected communities. MITS provides the flexibility to connect to the grid based on the available utility voltages in any affected area. The unit can be mounted on a trailer or a skid to allow for easy transport by road, rail, or air. Designed for quick set up and connection, the unit can be operational within four to eight hours of delivery to the site. Once the crisis is over, it can be discon­nected, removed and stored for future use.

MITS system

Modular Integrated Transportable Substations can supply enough power to support the equivalent of 400 homes. The technology can serve as a “universal adapter” to integrate into any grid (utility or commercial), facilitating the restoration of power in a safe, temporary manner. PHOTO COURTESY EATON CORP.



The threat of natural and manmade events manifesting into catastrophic grid failures continues to grow. The impacts to life and property have never been more acute. The majority of critical infrastructure needed to provide resiliency to impacted communities rely on stable and dependable electrical power to function and provide the building blocks for recovery. Yet we rely on the same inadequate and unreliable sources of backup power that we have for decades to provide the backbone upon which the entire recovery effort will rest.

The ultimate solution is the installation of distributed power systems mated with dedicated secure microgrids that are tasked to provide assured power to all identified critical infrastructure. The journey to that “best case scenario” will take decades to complete. In the interim, we, as a nation, no longer have to put our faith in outdated patchwork solutions to provide for critical power. Recent developments in distributed power systems, microgrids, and an ability to integrate localized fixed generation assets and the distribution system allows for the deployment of more potent and dependable emergency power to meet the critical needs of recovery and resiliency.

The technology is ready. The operational approach to operate this new class of mobile power generation equipment is well under­stood from military forward deployments. All that is left is the collective resolve to accept a paradigm shift that will dramati­cally expedite our ability to effectively respond to catastrophic events—likely resulting in significant improvement in protection of life and property.



Igor Stamenkovic, Ph.D., is Research & Technology Manager – Microgrid Technologies, James E. Dankowski, M.SAME, is Government Segment Manager, and The Honorable William C. “Bill” Anderson, Esq., M.SAME, formerly Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment & Logistics and Air Force Senior Energy Executive under President George W. Bush, is Director – Strategy & Business Development, Eaton Corp. They can be reached at 414-449-7647, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." target="_blank">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 410-540-5020, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." target="_blank">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; and 202-297-6765, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." target="_blank">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., respectively.