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Gaining Energy Independence in Facilities

Energy is one of the most challenging issues that facilities owners and managers of buildings and complexes. It doesn’t matter what type of building or complex it is, owners and tenants need reliable access to stable, affordable sources of energy. Simply put, building owners can’t afford interruptions to energy supplies and price spikes.

But owners don’t have to remain hostage to the price and availability fluctuations that are so common in the energy markets – they can take control of their needs, producing their own power and meeting their thermal needs with Independent Energy Districts.

Independent energy districts are small power plants that can be developed for building complexes and campuses. They are sized to meet the specific energy needs of the development they serve, and can be configured to operate on most fuel sources, including natural gas, oil, biofuels or propane. They also provide a remarkable degree of flexibility because if the fuel source that’s being used experiences a spike in price or availability shortages, independent energy districts can be reconfigured to burn a different fuel.

Today, natural gas is the most attractive fuel for most companies and institutions because it combines affordability with availability and sustainability, and natural gas prices are expected to remain low years to come. While it’s true that natural gas is a fossil fuel, it is cleaner and has less environmental impact than oil or coal. Over the next generation, natural gas will provide a “bridge” from fossil fuels to renewables.

Natural gas offers flexibility because it is available in several forms. The most common, of course, is as pipeline gas, which can be a good fuel choice for an independent energy district. With pipeline gas, the fuel is provided through utility pipelines and used to provide power and heat. The primary drawback to relying on pipeline gas is that utility-provided fuel can be subjected to service interruptions and price spikes.

For some, pipeline gas may not even be an option. For instance, some complexes located in remote areas may not have access to natural gas pipelines. Other areas may suffer from significant price spikes when infrastructure limitations make it difficult for local utilities to meet rising demand. For developments that don’t have convenient and reliable access to pipelines, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG) can offer “portable pipelines,” allowing companies and institutions to create their own pipelines.

LNG is natural gas that has been cooled to minus 260 degrees F. This condenses the gas into a liquid and takes up to 600 times less space and making it much easier to transport. Liquefying natural gas also removes common impurities, which makes it burn cleaner than even pipeline natural gas.

Utilizing LNG as a primary fuel source requires specific infrastructure, such as insulated storage tanks, vaporization systems to reconfigure the LNG to gas, and pumps to move the gas to storage tanks. Service pipes are also required to convey the vaporized LNG from storage to the end-use equipment.

Another potentially useful source of fuel for independent energy districts is CNG. CNG is highly compressed natural gas that can be stored and transported in container trucks, and which can be purchased from independent suppliers or gas utilities.

Like LNG, CNG facilities require their own infrastructure. A “mother” station (or compressor station) must be located where the CNG tube trailers can be loaded, and is managed by the CNG supplier. Additionally, a decompression—or “daughter”—station provides tube trailer off-load bays equipped with heaters to warm gas to the customer’s desired working pressure. Finally, a piping system is required. The piping system connects the daughter station to the rest of the apparatus to distribute the natural gas throughout the system.

While independent energy districts require front end investment dollars, the upside is significant.   First and foremost, it provides the building owners and operators the option to use natural gas as a fuel supply immediately – there is no waiting for a pipeline which could take several years and with a strong likelihood it won’t get to your front door because the economics will not work. Secondly, over the long haul, it will result in a savings as well as lowering your carbon footprint, especially if oil or coal is your primary fuel supply.

Building owners and operators can’t afford wild fluctuations in the price of the fuel they use to power and heat their facilities and unexpected interruptions to fuel supplies can also wreak havoc. By taking control of their own power and thermal needs with independent energy districts, developers and facility owners can eliminate energy uncertainty, assuring that they always have reliable and affordable access to the energy they need.

Mike Nicoloro is senior vice president and Joan Fontaine is vice president of Sanborn, Head & Associates, Inc. Mike Nocoloro can be reached at: mnicoloro@sanbornhead.com and Joan Fontaine can be reached at jfontaine@sanbornhead.com

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