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With Hurricane Season Here, Florida Health Centers Assess Readiness


Resilient Power

Direct Relief's Marisa Barnes surveys damage from Hurricane Ian on Thursday, October 6, 2022 in Ft. Myers, Florida. (Zack Wittman for Direct Relief)

Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared here and is part of a joint editorial partnership between Direct Relief and the National Association of Community Health Centers.

With hurricane season here, Florida is bracing for the worst. The state ranks sixth in the country for most weather-related power outages over the past 20 years. Powering through weather-related disasters carries far-reaching public health considerations. Health centers must be able to keep their doors open to respond to local health needs after catastrophic weather events, yet reported experiencing, on average, three outages per year.

These outages aren’t only harmful to public health; they’re also incredibly costly for health centers — averaging around $41,000 per day, according to a report released last month.

The Florida Association of Community Health Centers, or FACHC, assessed which sites have emergency power sources and found that nearly 60 percent of 800 health center sites do not have a backup power system, while a significant majority (84%) reported a desire to expand emergency power sources across their sites.

The results were published in a report prepared by FACHC and Clean Energy Group, or CEG, with input and support from Direct Relief, which examines current emergency backup power capabilities of Florida health centers, as well as opportunities for resilient power—solar PV paired with battery storage systems—at health centers.

What Prevents Resilient Power Adoption?

The survey also explored barriers to implementation — maintenance costs, facility structure and age, location vulnerability, and limited knowledge as some of the main barriers to installing backup power systems.

The cost of a backup power system was identified as the single largest hurdle by health centers, with almost 50% of respondents selecting “Installation Cost” as the primary barrier, according to the report.

Thirty percent of health centers indicated that the facilities’ age and/or other vulnerabilities impacted ability to move forward with backup power system investments. Structural issues, such as an old roof or outdated electrical wiring, can also be so cost and time prohibitive. The report also highlighted location vulnerabilities, like being in a flood plain, that can make siting backup power especially difficult.

Lack of awareness about backup power solutions as an option was also a reason that health centers had not moved forward on the issue, the report stated. Over 20% of health centers reported a lack of knowledge or capacity to explore available backup power options as a primary barrier, and newer technologies like solar and battery storage may be even more unfamiliar.

Power for Health

Direct Relief is a longstanding partner of FACHC and works extensively with Florida’s health centers on an ongoing basis and in response to emergencies.

Direct Relief’s Power for Health Initiative was launched in 2021 to help nonprofit community health centers in the U.S. maintain power and remain operational through increasingly common power outages resulting from disasters and electrical grid failures. The organization has committed to funding 100% of the costs of the design and installation of resilient power systems for up to 15 health center sites (one location per organization) throughout Florida.

“As this effort progresses, FACHC plans to share the insights gained to demonstrate the importance of emergency power for Health Centers and generate opportunities to enhance planning with regional coalitions, state and local emergency management, and hospital networks. FACHC also intends to use this information to explore potential financing options and funding streams for future projects through Hazard Mitigation Grants and other federal, state, and local programs,” the report stated. “Over the long term, FACHC’s goal is to see a significant increase (up to 20%) in the number of Health Center sites that utilize emergency power systems, thereby enhancing each location’s capacity to continue operations and provide access to critical health center services during an emergency event.”

Paying for Sources of Power

While Direct Relief’s Power of Health Initiative has provided a unique opportunity for a select number of health centers to design and install a hybrid backup system that provides resilience, additional paths forward must be considered.

Fortunately, there are alternative ways to overcome the financial barriers to installing power options. In addition to Direct Relief’s philanthropic approach to funding resilient power projects outright, The CHARGE partnership (Community Health Access to Reliable Green Energy) offers education, assessment, installation, and financing options for health centers. A collaboration between NACHC, Capital Link, and Collective Energy, CHARGE’s goal is to make resilient, reliable energy easy and affordable for health centers so that health centers can prioritize patient health. CHARGE can also help health centers navigate the many different solar incentives out there right now, such as the Inflation Reduction Act’s Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC).

Click here to read the full report.

Helping health centers in hurricane-prone areas is becoming a focus of policymakers. This week the Department of Health and Human Services announced $65 million in funding to ensure people have access to care at health centers when disaster strikes. The funding can be used for new construction, renovations and infrastructure repairs at health centers in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Puerto Rico to prevent flooding, upgrade emergency generators, and improve communication and mechanical systems ahead of future disasters.

“Through hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters, health centers keep their doors open and are a lifeline to services for patients and their communities. This funding helps make that possible,” said HRSA Administrator Carole Johnson in a press release. “We are making this funding available to make sure health centers can respond in an emergency and continue to be cornerstones in their communities when they are needed most.”

— Julia Dempsey, MPH, Environmental Health Program Associate, Public Health Priorities at the National Association of Community Health Centers, contributed to this article.

More information about Direct Relief’s Power for Health Initiative can be found here.

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