When choosing these systems, users face a variety of challenges including financing, installation, and selection.
By Lori Lovely
Optional onsite power generation, whether for standby or continuous duty applications, is becoming prevalent in a world filled with mission critical technology. The customer base for MTU Onsite Energy, a provider of diesel- and gas-powered systems, is typical of generator manufacturers because it includes mission-critical operations such as hospitals, water districts, data centers, power plants, Homeland Security, and other governmental agencies responsible for communications, satellite targeting or monitoring, and early warning systems.
According to Dwight Wells, senior manager, although commerce is the fastest-growing market, traditional applications such as commercial, industrial, and agricultural are still vibrant markets for large-scale onsite power systems. “Farmers need to power fans for livestock; municipalities need it for water treatment . . .” explains Wells.
However, as demand increases, not only do costs rise, but regulations become more complex and restrictive.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Every city and municipality has acoustic rules to accommodate urban and non-urban areas, day and night operations, standby, and continuous duty applications, states Alturdyne Power Systems Inc.’s Frank Verbeke. The El Cajon, CA-based manufacturer produces engine generator sets with reciprocating engines and turbine engines up to 5,000 horsepower. Fueled by diesel or natural gas, the units are placed inside existing buildings or specially built structures, or prepackaged in freestanding modules for customers in the telecommunications industry, the federal government and oil and gas companies, as well as for hospitals and residential and industrial use.
But according to Bill Clary, managing director for Miratech Corporation in Tulsa, OK, there are no clear noise standards—federal or local—only “concern about neighborhood nuisance.”
“There’s an “awareness of noise,” he elaborates, “but the regulations are unclear.”
Environmental effects can influence noise. Sound travels differently in cold weather—snow, fog—and geographical features such as valleys and hills can aggregate noise. “If a facility is in a valley for the view, noise can travel up,” explains Clary.
Miratech, which provides engineered emissions solutions for power generation applications driven by diesel- and natural gas–fueled reciprocating engines, hired an acoustic engineer to conduct baseline testing. Based on that, the company reconfigured the acoustic signature of the product.
“Because of noise requirements, a lot of work is being done in the power sector to address mechanical and exhaust noise,” says Clary. Some solutions are simple. Because the engine and equipment need to be housed in a building anyway, a small addition to include an acoustic treatment and insulation can be an inexpensive and easy way to contain noise. It also provides good heat insulation, he notes.
While enclosures can be acoustically treated to reduce mechanical noise, housings can be extended for additional exhaust silencing. However, Clary cautions, a silencer only attenuates certain frequencies and cannot be adequately “tweaked” unless measurements are taken. Unfortunately, he says, “there is no good database of noise emissions. Hospital-grade equipment is not a well-defined term. We still don’t know what’s coming out of the engine because the industry is lacking guidelines.”
|Photo: Solar Turbines
High-capacity onsite power makes sense for
many locations, but installation and upkeep can
Rules and Regulations
There are plenty of guidelines for a different kind of emission—so many in fact, it can be difficult to keep up with changing regulations regarding pollutants. Becoming or remaining compliant can get expensive.
Emissions rules are “the big thing getting attention,” believes Verbeke. Rules are driven both nationally and by state, with California the most stringent. Although no one objects to cleaner air, new and sometimes conflicting, confusing and often changing emissions rules “add time—to the manufacturer and the customer. Delivery times are longer for cleaner-burning engines. Exhaust filters can make a unit larger, doubling or tripling the size with additional mufflers, and requiring a larger building or more support because of the added weight. It all adds complexity and cost to the installation.”
One of the biggest challenges, as he sees it, involves the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) rules. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a final rule to reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants from existing diesel-powered stationary reciprocating internal combustion engines (RICE).
According to EPA estimates, more than 900,000 of these engines generate electricity to power equipment or produce electricity to pump water for flood and fire control in emergencies at power plants, manufacturing plants and other types of industrial enterprises, as well as agricultural and other facilities.
In 2008, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that EPA’s air toxics standards must address emissions during all phases of operation, including periods of startup, shutdown, and malfunction.
When the rule is fully implemented in 2013, EPA estimates that emissions from these engines will drop by approximately 1,000 tons per year of air toxics; 2,800 tpy of fine particulate matter; 14,000 tpy of carbon monoxide and 27,000 tpy of volatile organic compounds.
These reductions are expected to result in significant annual health benefits. In 2013, for example, they are expected prevent 110 to 270 premature deaths, 75 cases of chronic bronchitis, 170 nonfatal heart attacks, 180 cases of acute bronchitis, 1,900 cases of aggravated asthma and 87,000 acute respiratory symptoms. The monetary value of these benefits ranges from $940 million to $2.3 billion, which greatly exceeds the total national annual cost of $373 million.
The annual cost of the NESHAP rules includes control device operation and maintenance as well as monitoring, recordkeeping, reporting, and performance testing, all of which involve complicated steps. Verbeke has witnessed “consternation” over record keeping, compliance requirements, and modification requirements.
But perhaps as much trepidation comes from a bewildering jumble of rules and regulations, some of which take years to go into effect. Verbeke warns that the industry “expects significant federal change” regarding ozone standards, particulate standards and PSD—prevention of significant deterioration—in three years.
Even his prediction comes with a caveat, though. “If the rules change, they’re subject to modification and inherent delay from the EPA.” Federal mandates must get worked into state plans and strategies made for enforcement . . . and to pay for enforcement. “Regulations are expensive to maintain and monitor.”
Declaring that things have been “in flux since 1995,” Verbeke says it can take “years to catch up with rules.” Nevertheless, over the next four years he predicts tougher requirements hitting the business, especially related to particulates, chiefly because the American Lung Association and the California Air Resources Board have spent 20-plus years studying the health effects of particulates. “They’re trying to quantify the effects of absorbing [particulates] deep into the lungs.”
The next step, he predicts, is an ozone standard. “It’s a ripple effect that began with the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. It’s all part of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards—the basic guideline for rules and regulations.”
Verbeke believes states must push beyond federal guidelines to simplify requirements for business. “Pennsylvania is aggressive. It can also happen on a local level. Houston is modeling studies to cut NOx and hydrocarbons.”
Nitrogen oxide (NOx) can be turned into “good products” when urea is atomized in the exhaust, Wells explains. But if the urea runs out, the government requires a shut down. In fact, the engine does it automatically, and “you can’t change it; that’s tampering, which is illegal. But what if there’s an emergency and you need standby power?”
Under current EPA guidelines, only generators that aren’t required for standby power can be used for demand response. In regions prone to brownouts, that number may be limited. Wells believes it is confusing for the customer to differentiate uses constrained for the grid, particularly when the policies continue to evolve or vary from one location to another. For example, he says Virginia’s requirements are the most restrictive.
Having power available immediately after an event can be an issue if regulations don’t permit standby generators to run for a long time. “What happens if there’s a disaster to the grid? How do you react in a short amount of time when EPA rulings keep changing?”
The problem is that many EPA codes and standards conflict with other codes and standards. “It’s a problem reconciling issues,” says Wells. “There’s so much ambiguity and conflicts between standards, it makes it impossible to meet them.”
Decentralization—splitting the grid into zones—can help prevent issues due to long-term power outages, Verbeke believes. “Individual gensets are the last word.”
Efficiency Versus Ecology
Efficiencies are getting better, with consortiums and individual companies making more efficient and cleaner-burning engines. At the SW Research Institute in San Antonio Cat, Cummins, and Detroit Diesel cosponsor projects to develop and share data. “Diesel is lean-burn by nature,” says Verbeke, “but fuel economy requirements are leading to the development of more lean-burning engines.”
The continued availability of low-priced gas—the feedstock for engines and big power plants—is a hindrance, he contends.
“Natural gas is cleaner than coal and diesel, but coal has a major role for generating electricity. We’re working on ‘clean’ coal, but it’s an important aspect of the industry.”
Natural gas is also cheaper than diesel, Clary says, which is one reason diesel is used for standby power more than in engines that run a significant amount of time, possibly for peak shearing or baseload services.
“The issues [for each] are different, although noise is a consideration for both. Emissions are a concern when diesel is used. Particulate reduction near schools and hospitals is also a concern, especially in California.”
Diesel particulate filters and SCR after-treatment are the next level needed, Wells believes.
“Nuclear is not a viable option. Is coal really clean? The deregulated oil industry lacks consistency. More after-treatment correlates to less efficiency, but it’s still cleaner.”
The grid is aging. It’s dirty—and longer hours mean more pollutants. Utilities are already developing programs and lobbying Washington to require a percentage of distribution to be green, Wells indicates.
“We can reduce the inventory of pollution, but no one wants to pay for it.”
Wells says some nearby distribution plants can’t be used because they’re dirtier than new alternatives, even if they are more productive. It’s a complicated issue that will affect the industry, as well as affect the economy and the growth rate.
“There has to be normalization of all areas, consistency and control.”
Until a stable plan with clear public benefits can be established, he envisions many providers exiting the industry due to sheer complication and confusion, or lack of profitability.
Shaking Things Up
Those remaining in the industry continue to evaluate situations that arise due to natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and investigate ways to improve. In devising new codes, examples are noted.
“Putting a system on the roof is great,” says Wells, “but keeping fuel in the basement is not great if it floods. During Sandy, people needed structures, but nobody could get fuel to them. It becomes a question of storage and how much can reasonably be put onsite.”
Protecting both fuel and equipment during a seismic event is a big concern, Wells indicates. Ensuring the system doesn’t break away from its bolts or just break into pieces is driving new codes. “There are nuances to the regulations in California regarding occupational safety that call for certification of equipment for seismic forces,” explains Wells.
He says Berkeley Pier Lab has been conducting full-scale seismic testing of complete gensets on their shaker tables to ensure compliance with recognized standards for seismic survival set by the International Building Code and other local agencies, such as the California Office of Statewide Planning and Development. To date, every MTU Onsite Energy generator tested has passed its shaker test.
As a result of seismic reviews in California, Verbeke says additional exhaust equipment must be added, at more cost.
“The more complex it becomes, the more it costs,” he sums up, adding, “the cost of new equipment while significant, can be amortized.”
At What Cost?
Equipment cost is merely a subset of a bigger category: the cost of change. Effecting change to emissions regulations is a three- to four-year process, Wells estimates—and there “might be four changes during the process! Can anybody afford it? Can we afford science? What level of compliance can we provide? It’s a tenuous situation; this is a fast-moving world.”
Compliance is complicated by inconsistent regulations. Although Wells says most emerging markets “aren’t concerned about emissions,” he lists Singapore as an example of the difficulties facing the creation of uniform standards. Singapore adopted USEPA standards, he says, but based on 50 hertz, not the standard 60 familiar in the US. “The EPA had to create new standards for them.”
Singapore isn’t the only location with unique standards. Wells says there are 30 locales in California with different requirements.
Sorting it out is a “huge challenge in onsite power,” Wells insists, often requiring consultants to provide engine and permitting services. “They can bridge the gap and help the customer understand. A lot of manufacturers use nuanced words to avoid helping the competition, but that confuses the customer.”
For consumers, choosing the right system becomes even more bewildering when Tier 4i emissions compliant levels are included. “They are not certified, so they’re only for standby [power generation],” explains Wells.
However complicated they may be, it’s important to understand the requirements, he says. For example, “L.A. [Los Angeles] relies on federal funds for highway improvement; if they’re not compliant, they don’t get money.”
The Engine Gen Set Manufacturers Association, a trade organization (made up of approximately 600 companies) designed to promote the industry, helps Verbeke and Alturdyne—and others—“stay abreast of legislation and R&D.” They also examine the benefits of other forms of energy production, such as solar panels and renewables—wind and landfill gas—and apply similar benefits to their applications.
Despite the many challenges, Wells believes the future of onsite power generation is positive. Through its 100-year history, MTU remains a “small niche player,” he says. That suits a time when niche markets are growing.
“Customers come to us to resolve problems,” concludes Wells.
Author’s Bio: Writer Lori Lovely focuses on topics related to transportation and technology.