16 District Energy | Spring/Summer 2019 © 2019 International District Energy Association. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
The weather forecasts in late August 2017 were dire. Meteorologists warned that coastal areas in Texas could experience unprecedented
flooding from a powerful storm that was
headed their way. They were right.
For nearly a week, Hurricane Harvey
formed and strengthened, hitting Houston with a record-setting 51 inches of rain
falling over a five-day period, Aug. 25-30.
Yet even before Harvey had a name, it
was on Thermal Energy Corp.’s (TECO’s)
radar screen as a storm to watch.
Houston-based TECO – the chilled-water and steam supplier to institutions
on the campus of the Texas Medical Center (TMC) – understood the challenge at
hand. Service to the world’s largest medical complex had to continue no matter
the weather: The 20. 7 million sq ft of
space in customer buildings – including
two Level I trauma centers, 9,200 hospital
beds and multiple laboratories – needed
uninterrupted thermal energy supply.
Patients’ lives and billions of dollars’
worth of life science research were at
stake. Failure was not an option.
The result? Chilled water and steam
flowed without a hitch, made possible by
earlier investments in equipment redun-
dancy and reliability, a fine-tuned emer-
gency preparedness plan, a dedicated
storm ”ride-out team” of employees, and
effective communication and coordina-
tion with customers.
LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE
TECO is no stranger to hurricanes
and tropical storms. It endured Hurricane
Alicia in 1983; Tropical Storm Allison in
2001; Hurricane Rita in 2005; and then
Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm,
in 2017. The company saw the resulting
While TECO’s reliability has always
been the cornerstone of its operations,
such experiences continue to inform and
influence the company’s emergency planning efforts. It conducts debriefing sessions
after each major storm event to help fortify
the company’s plans and procedures.
2001’s Tropical Storm Allison was
one of the worst disasters to ever hit
Houston, dropping 36 inches of rain that
flooded and knocked out power to the
area. The destruction at the Texas Medical Center was unimaginable, with more
than $2 billion lost in research projects
alone. TECO escaped serious flooding
with 6 inches of water flowing from the
adjacent Brays Bayou to the west side
of the Central Plant; just an inch or two
seeped inside the building, but that was
too close for comfort.
In Allison’s aftermath, TECO adopted
a Central Plant Flood Protection Project
to prevent future flooding. Installed in
2003, the project included a floodwall
and floodgates designed to withstand a
500-year flood plus 2 ft. (The wall was
extended in 2011 to cover new property
as TECO expanded its plant.)
“In 2003 we drilled 254 shafts, 30
feet deep, for reinforced concrete piers to
support the floodwall around the plant,”
says retired Vice President of Engineer-
ing Bruce Turner, PE, CPE. “The foot-thick
wall was a major project that required
great precision. It was a $5.5 million ini-
tial investment in our system’s future that
was well worth it. Without the floodwall
and floodgates, portions of our Central
Plant would have been under water dur-
ing Hurricane Harvey. Harvey was our
floodwall’s first major test, and it worked
exactly as designed.”
Allison also helped drive plans for a
48 MW combined heat and power unit,
which was part of TECO’s $377 Master
Plan Implementation Project constructed
from 2007 to 2011 under the guidance
of Burns & McDonnell. With the comple-
tion of CHP in 2010, TECO became a for-
midable microgrid. It can produce enough
electricity to power TECO’s entire Central
Plant, keeping chillers and boilers running
The floodwall around TECO’s Central Plant (far left) held back Hurricane Harvey’s floodwater that peaked just under Brays Bayou’s bridges.
A story of preparedness and resolve
In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey turned its eye toward Houston, but
Thermal Energy Corp. was ready.
Stephen K. Swinson, PE, President and Chief Executive Officer, Thermal Energy Corp.;
and Jose Garcia, PE, CEM, Operations Manager, Thermal Energy Corp.