Making the switch to on-site electricity

Technology: With distributed generation, companies can avoid power interruptions and volatile energy prices.

March 24, 2002|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

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'

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