Alternative Power

April 8, 2002
Designing a Safe and Reliable Electrical System - Part 7
Darr Hashempour, a vice president with Syska Hennessy Group, answers some basic questions about the newest energy solutions via the company’s OnlinEnvironments( Syska Hennessy Group, a leader in consulting, engineering, technology, and construction, has 600 people in 10 offices nationwide and serves an international roster of clients.Q: What are the most popular – and realistic – ways for businesses to wean themselves off of the electrical grid yet still have enough power?A: “The best choice is on-site or distributed power generation by using fossil fuels such as natural gas or oil. You can also use fuel cells or renewable energy, including photovoltaic (solar), wind, small hydropower, and biomass.”Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of each source?A: “The main advantage of using any alternative source of power is that you no longer have to fear skyrocketing rates from the electric company or risk downtime from black-outs. Renewable sources are better for the environment and can sometimes net rebates from local governments. But choosing to step away completely from the electrical grid is a move that takes careful consideration.“For example, fossil fuels are easy to obtain, but states with strict pollution laws may not allow the amount of variance needed to burn the required amount of fuel to keep the lights on and the computers running. And in some areas, the cost of securing permits for uninterruptible supplies of natural gas can be very high. Other businesses may not have the space necessary to house a large tanker filled with diesel fuel or the space to house the actual generator, which can be the size of a large sport utility vehicle.“Wind energy is very cheap, but again, you need massive amounts of space to erect the wind turbines. They are most feasible in large desert areas in the Western United States. Biomass – the burning of waste – is more apt to be used in rural areas where farmers have crop debris or in third-world nations where a lack of landfill space requires garbage to be burned.“While there is plenty of solar energy to harness for power, existing technology only allows you to collect about 2 or 3 kilowatts per hour. A small shopping center can get by with three solar collectors generating 9 kilowatts per hour, but that is not enough power for a large office building or a manufacturer. A small hydroelectric power plant is another renewable source of energy that does not generate adequate amounts to power large businesses and, of course, you have to be located next to a body of water.“Fuel cells offer potential, but there is a lot of room for improvement. They work by a chemical reaction that generates the electricity. The most successful fuel cells can generate about 200 kilowatts per hour – enough power for a small office building with no heavy equipment. But it’s not yet feasible because of high operation, maintenance, and replacement costs, and the additional space needed to house the unit.”Q: With so many constraints, why would any business want to look for alternatives to the electrical grid?A: “Large manufacturers need alternative power sources to offset the high cost of electricity during peak hours. Oftentimes, businesses in need of state or local tax breaks adopt partial methods of on-site generation. It also generates goodwill among their customer base. And some states reward homeowners with sizeable rebates for installing solar panels. A good incentive program can cover 30 to 40 percent of the installation cost.“There are constraints on the supply of electricity because neighbors oppose construction of new power plants – especially nuclear energy – and the current grid system needs repair and updating.“So the long-term solution is to bring down the cost of on-site generation and the short-term solution is energy conservation. Both homes and offices can get by with using less lighting, air-conditioning, and heating. It’s also prudent to retrofit with energy-efficient equipment and appliances that use a third less power and go to sleep when not in use.”

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