Making the Switch to On-Site Electricity

By Dan Thanh Dang

Sun Staff

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun, March 24, 2002

If Aris Marantan does his job well, not a single person who works in the Chesapeake Building at the University of Maryland, College Park will notice.

That's because the lights come on with the flip of a switch, the computers boot up at the push of a button and the printers hum without a hitch — all humdrum events. What's unusual is that almost 30 percent of the electricity is generated in a box the size of a large industrial freezer outside the building's back door.

Some electricity consumers can live with a momentary blackout or sputtering lights, but many commercial and industrial companies cannot. So making electricity in the back yard has never looked quite so easy or so attractive as it does after a year of consumer confidence shaken by rolling blackouts in California, higher energy prices across the country, the collapse of Enron Corp. and growing concerns about the nation's power supply.

"Whether you use it for backup power, to help you disconnect from the grid or as a combination to meet your power needs, on-site generation helps you be sure that the power won't go down when you need it most," said Marantan, a mechanical engineering doctoral student and manager of the university project. "There are about 200 people who work in this four-story, 52,000- square-foot building. They do not want their service interrupted.

"If you're concerned about reliability, this could be the answer to your problems."

The concept is called distributed generation (DG). It means generating electricity on-site for use in a small area or by a small company instead of relying on a huge power plant that might be hundreds of miles away.

Distributed generation has attracted little interest as large, central plants and a network of transmission lines have connected consumers to vast grids relatively efficiently and cheaply.

But that's changing. Running the grid and the huge power plants has became increasingly expensive. Old transmission lines need upgrading, and disconnections in the system make it difficult to transmit electricity across the country. Land for rights-of-way for new lines is ever more costly. Deregulation has raised the specter of power interruptions and volatile prices.

At the same time, the United States has grown more dependent on electricity. Electricity use accounted for 25 percent of the energy consumed in the country in 1970. Today, that figure is 40 percent, and it continues to grow by about 2 percentage points each year, according to a study by the Consumer Energy Council of America.

"There's less room in the country to build more transmission lines, large substations and power lines, not to mention the fact that many people don't want them in their back yard," said Richard DeBlasio, technology manager for Distributed Energy Resources at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. "But with distributed generation, it's smaller and dispersed. If one unit fails, the others keep working. Reliability improves."

Ellen Berman of the Consumer Energy Council agrees. "If you can take some of the load off the grid and locate it closer to the user, it's more efficient energy use," Berman said. "More efficient energy use translates into cost benefits over time and improved quality of power. It's a very important technology that's grossly underutilized, but it's also a concept that's catching on like crazy."

Examples nationwide

During California's power crisis last year, Healdsburg, a town in Sonoma Valley's wine country, rented two 1.75-megawatt generators to thwart rolling blackouts that threatened its downtown.

In Chicago, a McDonald's restaurant uses a natural gas-fired micro-turbine to cut $1,500 off its monthly power bill, and a pilot program started late last year placed fuel cells in several homes.

Hundreds of U.S. buildings are powered by fuel cells, which function like a huge battery that generates power through a pollution-free chemical reaction.

In Baltimore, the Maryland Stadium Authority keeps a generator under the Hamburg Street bridge in case of game-night emergencies. Sweetheart Cup Corp. hired Trigen-Cinergy Solutions to build and operate a power plant that will eventually supply 75 percent of the electricity and steam needed for manufacturing paper and plastic products at Sweetheart's Owings Mills plant. Sweetheart expects to save $800,000 a year on its energy bill.

In one of the largest DG projects in the state, Trigen-Cinergy is also building an on-site power plant to supply the College Park campus with electricity, heat and air conditioning through 2019.

'Much more efficient now'

South of Lake Okeechobee in Florida, Florida Crystals Corp., which recently bought Domino Sugar, built a power plant to generate electricity from bagasse, the fiber left after the juice is squeezed from sugar cane. The burned fiber produces steam, turning a generator that produces enough electricity to run an entire plant and power 40,000 homes a year. Excess steam is captured and used in the company's sugar products and molasses mills. Florida Crystals' plant cost $200 million to build.

"We're much more efficient now and making better use of our resources," said Jorge Dominicis, vice president of corporate affairs at Florida Crystals. "It took a lot of planning and a lot of effort, but it made our sugar farm a more self-sustaining operation. Now we make enough energy to sell some back to the utility."

Marantan and his College Park colleagues - three graduate students supervised by a professor [Professor Reinhard Radermacher] — say they hope to disconnect the Chesapeake Building from the grid within the next couple of years. Experimenting with donated micro-turbines, cooling systems and computers, the Maryland project monitors humidity, air pressure, temperature and power consumption with the help of three miles of green, red and white sensory wires threaded through the building.

The data collected from the building will help calculate the efficiency and output of the DG equipment, and will be shared with the project's supporters, a consortium of energy companies, manufacturers and utilities interested in DG.

Better with research

DG technology has improved with research to include a range of energy production alternatives, from fuel cells to wind turbines, using a variety of fuel sources to produce electricity. Natural gas channeled through yellow pipes into the Chesapeake Building's micro-turbine is mixed with air inside a chamber to produce pressure that spins the turbine, producing electricity. It uses the same basic technology as jet engines.

DG's growing popularity has lured established companies. General Electric Co. offers DG power products and recently bought Enron's wind turbine manufacturing assets. Caterpillar Co., a leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, makes a line of diesel and natural gas engines and industrial gas turbines.

In Annapolis, a division of Helsinki-based Wartsila Corp. known for making giant natural gas-powered and diesel-fueled engines for cruise ships, has started marketing a line of DG power plants.

"These ships have the power of small cities," said Thomas M. Carbone, president of Wartsila North America Inc., which designs, builds and operates power plants. "Our clients said, 'If you can do this on a ship, how about you do it on land?' We quickly realized there was a business out there for smaller plants attached to industrial sites. We really think that is where the future will be."

Supplement, not supplant

The likelihood that DG will supplant large, central power plants is slim. Regulatory factors, utility business practices and environmental guidelines make it difficult to integrate DG equipment into the grid. Also, the technology is too expensive for most residential consumers, limiting its use to large companies that can afford to experiment. But DG's expenses can be recouped through savings.

Bethlehem Steel Corp. has been generating power with the help of smaller conventional power plants built on-site since the 1920s. Utility-size turbines generate about 150 megawatts of electricity at the Sparrows Point plant, enough to power 150,000 homes.

"Back in those days, reliability wasn't that great," said Peter Franolic, director of corporate energy affairs at Bethlehem Steel. "It's only recently that economic considerations entered the picture. In the early '80s going forward, electricity began getting more and more expensive because of higher prices of oil, natural gas and the uncertainties of OPEC. If we didn't generate our own, our electricity cost would increase many millions of dollars a year. It's worth doing."

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun

Published March 24, 2002