How this Houston microgrid company dealt with Harvey

For Houston-based Enchanted Rock Ltd., a Houston-based microgrid company, preparations for Hurricane Harvey didn’t begin just a week or two ahead of the Category 4 storm.

It has been preparing for the moment that its new natural gas-fueled grids would be tested for about a year, said Thomas McAndrew, Enchanted Rock’s president and CEO.

“Quite frankly, it was anticlimactic. As it should be,” said McAndrews.

The company had been using its microgrids, which primarily exist at H-E-B supermarkets and Buc-ee’s service stations right now, to cover isolated power outages ever since it signed its deal with San Antonio-based H-E-B in July 2016. Cumulatively, the grids have seen around 50 hours of reliability service in that time, McAndrews said.  But this was the first time the microgrids have had to provide backup power in a mass, regional disaster like Harvey, McAndrews said. And it’s been going well, he said.

The company has been able to maintain wider control over the microgrids from its network operations center. Normally, that’s a room in its headquarters near downtown Houston where Enchanted Rock can monitor the status of its assets and turn them on or off.

But the expectations around flooding ahead of the storm prompted the company to switch to its backup center, a hardened facility built to withstand anything up to a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane. The Enchanted Rock employees needed to monitor and control the grid work there in shifts around the clock.

“They can live out of there for weeks, if necessary,” McAndrews said.

It’s built to house Enchanted Rock operators riding out the storm at the center and working in shifts around the clock, McAndrews said.

McAndrews said that while he thinks the microgrids have held up well throughout the storm, there are still a few things — a whole list of them actually — that he will do differently next time. By way of example, he said that Enchanted Rock can’t monitor flood levels remotely at individual locations.

The grids generally should be taken offline for safety reasons if a location floods out, and the company was having to rely on on-site monitoring to know when to do that. But the stores themselves were often too busy to provide frequent enough updates on that front.

He said that the reliable power source has made it possible for a number of emergency services to set up a base at the H-E-B in League City, near Dickinson, which is under mandatory evacuation.

The store is home right now to a National Guard unit, a search and rescue team and a number of other state agencies. And there are more similar services at one of the Buc-ee’s locations on an Enchanted Rock grid, too.

“It’s a surreal situation,” McAndrews said. “It’s kind of a neat thing for us, that we were a part of helping them be able to do that.”

Originally published on Houston Business Journal