There are plenty of solutions for facilities struggling with the challenges of generating significant amounts of power onsite.
By Dan Rafter
Data Cave, a full-service colocation data center in Columbus, IN, consumes and generates a lot of power. Caleb Tennis, president of the data center, says that his business generates about 2 1/2 MW of power on a daily basis.
Like all data centers, the Data Cave can’t afford not to produce this power. The clients that rely on the data center to store their information—everything from financial services providers, educational institutions, and Fortune 500 companies—won’t hesitate to bring their business, and their dollars, elsewhere if the power does go out and they can’t access their important information.
To make sure that this doesn’t happen, the Data Cave relies on multiple sources to generate the large amount of power that they need to run their computer systems. The data center boasts two 2.5-megavolt-ampere (MVA) electrical transformers, each powered by separate utility feeds. The center also houses two 2-MW Cummins diesel-powered generators and electrical switchgear to control and balance the power.
Data Cave also relies on a pair of UPS systems, to make sure that the power supply to its computers is never interrupted. Each of the company’s data suites also boasts two dedicated redundant power distribution units (PDUs) fed from the UPS systems. Each PDU provides another level of transient voltage surge suppression protection.
This may seem like overkill. But for Tennis, it’s all about
instilling confidence in his clients that the Data Cave can consume and generate large amounts of power without any interruptions.
“The continuous uptime of power is the most important thing that we offer our customers,” says Tennis. “We never want to have to worry about having an outage. The UPS systems are critical to us. We simply can’t have any moments of downtime. Our customers need to have constant access to the data we store for them.”
The Data Cave isn’t the only company relying on UPS systems, steam boilers, and microturbines to provide a constant stream of uninterrupted power. And the Data Cave is far from the only company that consumes and generates a large amount of power, much of it generated onsite.
Generating large amounts of onsite power can prove challenging. Some companies struggle to find enough space to house the systems needed to generate such large amounts of onsite power. Others battle noise issues, facing the challenge of providing a quiet workspace when they’re also tasked with generating several megawatts’ worth of power each day.
Still others battle to keep the emissions from large-scale power generation systems within the legal limits set by local regulations. Then, there are the cost factors: Large-scale onsite power systems are far from inexpensive. For many companies and building owners, especially in today’s challenging economic times, purchasing this equipment, even if it results in long-term savings, can stretch an already tight budget too far.
The good news is that manufacturers in the onsite industry, whether they provide generators, steam power, or UPS systems, are constantly refining their products. Today, they offer plenty of solutions to those companies that are struggling with the challenges of generating significant amounts of power onsite.
Manufacturers can help companies reduce the noise and vibrations that larger onsite systems generate. They can help building owners with site-selection issues, helping them find the ideal locations in their facilities for large-scale onsite power systems.
Manufacturers can even help building owners and companies negotiate power purchase agreements, in which clients who generate power onsite can sell any excess power to their local public utilities. Such agreements can help reduce the financial burden that building owners and companies face when purchasing onsite equipment powerful enough to generate large amounts of power.
In short, the manufacturers serving companies that need to generate large amounts of onsite power are far from unaware of the challenges that these companies face. And they’re taking whatever steps they can to help them overcome these challenges.
“Some of the problems associated with generating large amounts of power are the same ones associated with any type of onsite generation. But there are some problems, of course, that are unique to large applications,” says Jim Crouse, executive vice president of sales with Capstone Turbine Corporation, a producer of low-emission microturbine systems. “Space, for instance, is a big issue. Where do you find room to install a one-megawatt system or a 10-megawatt system? Then there are noise issues. Fortunately, we work closely with our clients to address their problems individually and to come up with solutions.”
Providing the Power
Chris Petcos, chief operating officer of Erie, PA-based Indeck Keystone Energy, knows just how complicated life can be for companies trying to generate large amounts of onsite power.
Generating large amounts of power onsite can be challenging.
He knows, for instance, that some companies struggle to obtain the financing they need to purchase and install high-capacity onsite power systems. He knows, too, that others struggle when it comes to selecting the right technology to meet regulatory issues and permitted emissions limits. And he’s seen companies that have installed large-scale onsite systems only to then battle persistent noise issues.
Petcos, though, says that most of these problems can be avoided when providers of onsite power equipment work closely with their clients from the earliest planning stages to the time of installation.
This is how Indeck operates, he says. And it’s the most effective way to eliminate problems before they actually become problems.
By providing “upfront assistance with technical data to meet air pollution permit requirements, equipment site layouts and arrangements, and technical specification support,” Petcos believes manufacturers of large-scale onsite power systems can help customers “minimize risks and lower overall evaluated costs.”
“By providing suggestions to improve overall efficiency,” says Petcos, customers can “lower installation costs and minimize operations expenses.”
Unfortunately, many companies in need large amounts of power often get little help from their public utilities, another reason why so many are turning to onsite generation. And at other times, facilities like data centers, medical providers and plants simply don’t trust the reliability of their public utility. Because of this, they need the ability to generate large amounts of power onsite as either a main source of energy or a backup in case the public utility suffers an outage.
For many onsite power manufacturers, the goal is to help their customers choose the right UPS system for their buildings: a system that will provide them with the peace of mind that comes with having a reliable and uninterruptible power source.
Reliable Large-Scale Power
Manufactures of onsite power systems are adept at helping their clients overcome the most serious challenges associated with generating large amounts of power. For instance, Indeck’s steam boilers are designed to be adaptable, able to act as supplements to their existing onsite power systems. Indeck’s auxiliary boilers can provide the steam necessary to start a steam turbine, and that steam can also be depended upon a backup to new (or existing) cogeneration systems.
Additionally, when electric rates are high enough to negatively impact the profitability of a plant or building, auxiliary boilers can provide excess steam to a steam host as part of a cogeneration system. This can save companies a significant amount of money in yearly electrical costs. And with the added option of equipment rental, facilities suffering a sudden or unexpected energy emergency still have access to reliably backup equipment. As an added bonus for manufacturing facilities, rental boilers can help provide extra steam power to increase energy and match ever-higher product production.
Petcos says that a growing number of clients who need to produce large amounts of onsite power have turned to his company’s products. Part of the reason? The economy.
Increasingly, large-scale power producers are looking to save money in whatever ways they can, and can find a good source of savings by generating their own onsite power. When they do this, they don’t have to purchase increasingly costly power from their public utilities.
“The power generation market has seen shifts in the last several years to include biomass and renewable plants and new combined-heat-and-power facilities for airports, universities, and the private sector,” says Petcos. “With natural gas pricing at its current low levels, more customers are looking to install new steam-generating and hot water generators using natural gas as the fuel of choice. With natural gas as a primary fuel, installations are easier to permit. These plants’ overall construction and installation cycles are more cost-effective than are plant designs based on nuclear, coal, biomass, and solar.”
Solving the Large-Scale Generation Challenges
But how to overcome the noise, vibration and space issues that are so common with large-scale onsite power generation? Crouse, from Capstone, says that it all goes back to planning.
For instance, companies and manufacturers can work together on the space issues that so often come up in large-scale onsite installations.
Building owners can install equipment that isn’t too heavy and doesn’t vibrate too violently on the facilities’ rooftops, Crouse says. Other building owners might find enough space for even large-scale onsite equipment in their facilities’ basements.
Then there are the more creative methods of solving space issues.
Crouse points to a client in Russia that needed a cogeneration applications to make steam for a salt plant but also had little available space for onsite power equipment. The client stacked two of Capstone’s C1000 microturbines on top of each other at either end of a room. This allowed the client to generate 4 MW of onsite power while taking up as little room as possible.
This stacking ability in Capstone’s turbines was by design, Crouse says.
“We thought there would be opportunities in high-rise and urban areas, places like New York and Chicago [IL] where real estate space is almost non-existent, for stacking,” he says.
Crouse also points to the recent installation of a 1,600-kW onsite system in Bogota, Colombia. The client installed the system on the roof of its building because the microturbine was lightweight and barely vibrated.
“It was very quiet up there,” says Crouse. “It was very easy for that client to attenuate the noise levels.”
Adaptable steam boilers can supplement existing onsite systems.
Noise is often a vexing issue for companies and plants that need to generate large amounts of onsite power. The bigger onsite power systems tend to be noisy, and that can lead to uncomfortable working conditions.
Again, though, manufacturers and clients can work together to make sure that noise does not become a problem.
Crouse, for instance, says that building owners can often turn to prefabricated enclosures that can muffle or eliminate noise. Other owners simply choose the right location—on the roof, in the basement, or somewhere else far away from workers—to lessen any possible noise issues.
Cost issues can prove more challenging, especially with the largest of onsite power systems. As Crouse says, while the dollar cost per kilowatt-hour installed goes down when companies order larger onsite power systems, the total costs of installation still rise.
As an example, Crouse says it might cost $4,000 a kilowatt-hour for a company to install a 500-kW onsite power system. It might cost just $2,000 a kilowatt-hour for the same company to install a far larger 10-MW system. But the total cost for the larger system will be far higher than it is for the smaller version.
But there are solutions. Companies, for instance, can sell back part of the power they generate to their local public utilities.
At the same time, companies might actually realize long-term savings after spending the large upfront cost of ordering and installing a large-scale onsite power generation system, according to Crouse. Power costs are rising in several parts of the country. By generating all or a portion of their power onsite, companies can avoid the uncertainty that comes with ever-fluctuating electricity costs.
In other cases, adds Crouse, public utilities simply can’t serve some companies and their facilities.
“It can be a challenge for many companies to invest the money needed to purchase a larger system,” he explains. “But this is largely a regional issue. In parts of the country where electricity prices are higher, we see more and larger systems being installed. Lack of availability is a driver, too. You might have a new construction building or an expansion, and the nearest utility doesn’t have the infrastructure existing to add the load. Some turn to onsite generation to avoid having to spend the multiple millions of dollars it’d take to have the utility service the building.”
Natural gas prices always are stable, and affordable, at the moment. This, Crouse believes, can serve as an incentive to companies that are worried about the initial upfront cost of an onsite power system. Yes, coming up with that money might be difficult, but it will result in significant energy savings each year.
“The forecast is that natural gas prices will be stable for the next five to seven years,” continues Crouse. “Because of that, we are seeing a lot of interest in onsite generation.”
Reliability Is Key
Companies turn to onsite power generation for a reason: They want reliable, high-quality power to keep their factories, office buildings, hospitals, and supermarkets running, even if their public power grid suffers a hiccup.
This is true, too, of those companies and manufacturers who need to generate large amounts of power onsite. Having the capacity to generate megawatts of power doesn’t do much good if that power is constantly suffering surges, spikes, or interruptions.
That’s where UPS systems come in. Designed to negate the spikes and interruptions that can shut down power for even seconds, UPS systems are essential to critical infrastructure—such as the data centers—where even the briefest blip in their power can result in lost clients or revenues.
The UPS systems clean the power heading to the computers, equipment, and machines upon which these clients rely, preventing mainly the power surges and spikes that can cause brief, but costly, interruptions. By preventing these surges and spikes, UPS systems also protect expensive equipment and computers. By keeping these safe, UPS systems provide companies with financial peace of mind—they won’t have to worry about spending the large amounts of money necessary to repair or replace damaged equipment.
UPS systems also provide bridging power, keeping the power load for UPS clients up-and-running until power returns. To help sell their UPS systems, many manufacturers advise potential clients to weigh several factors. Cost is important, of course. But just as important is quality. And it always makes sense to consider a manufacturer with a long track record in the power-protection industry.
Companies and building owners also need to factor in the cost of long-term maintenance when deciding exactly how much a UPS system will cost. Some UPS systems might cost less upfront, but then require more costly maintenance and repair work during its life span.
Industry experts predict that more companies will need the microturbines, steam boilers, UPS systems, and other equipment that allows them to generate large amounts of power onsite.
And as large-scale onsite generation becomes more common, companies will learn that the upfront cost of such systems results in peace of mind, reliability, lower energy bills, and higher-quality power.
Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.