The fourth pillar of the electrical contractor’s energy services business is energy reliability, which ensures your customer has the right quantity and quality of electrical energy when it is needed. Energy reliability complements the other three pillars by addressing the customer’s need to not only reduce expenses but have a strategy for reliably meeting his or her energy needs.

Few, if any, businesses could survive today without both an adequate and reliable supply of electrical energy used to produce products and services, to communicate, and to control business and production processes using computers and information technology (IT). The lack of an adequate, reliable electric energy supply can result in lost productivity, production waste, damaged equipment, spoiled inventories, dissatisfied customers and safety issues that can affect the customer’s bottom line.

If energy reliability also is an issue for your customer, it is not enough to reduce customer energy consumption and expenses through conservation and efficiency initiatives or to supplement utility-delivered electric energy with on-site energy production. Energy reliability is about helping your customer develop a strategy to economically meet energy needs through his or her retail electric utility in concert with energy conservation, efficiency and production initiatives.

The first thing that needs to be determined is the reliability of the electric utility service serving the customer’s facility. In most urban areas, the electric utility service is very reliable, and the customer expects and tolerates occasional outages that result from unusual weather or other events. Even in urban areas, however, there may be locations where the electric utility service’s unreliability causes the customer problems. For instance, an overhead distribution line serves a high-rise condominium tower, and during storms, one phase of the three-phase service is often lost, resulting in damaged pump and fan motors. Similarly, a warehouse facility is located at the end of a distribution circuit and experiences chronic low voltage, causing automated warehouse equipment to lock up and shut down operations regularly. Similar problems can be more common in rural areas, where the utility distribution system may not have been designed to handle the size or sensitivity of today’s loads.

Customers may be willing to live with the energy reliability issues they experience. However, an electrical contractor can correct these problems on the customer’s side. Correcting the chronic low-voltage problem in a warehouse may be as simple as adjusting transformer taps. Eliminating motor damage in a condominium due to utility service -single-phasing may only involve installing a phase-loss relay in the motor starters. Other problems may require more complex solutions, such as the installation of backup generation or uninterruptible power supplies to protect against voltage transients and interruptions.

Energy reliability issues are not always utility problems but are often internal facility issues that the electrical contractor can help identify and correct. These internal issues can be anything from voltage transients that affect sensitive electronic equipment—due to heating, ventilating, and air conditioning and other motorized equipment cycling on and off—to electrical noise and harmonics resulting from a large electronic load concentrated in a portion of the facility.

In addition to troubleshooting specific power quality issues, the electrical contractor can help a customer avoid future outages and losses by setting up a regular preventive maintenance program that will detect potential problems in advance and avoid facility downtime due to equipment failure.

Energy reliability and energy strategy
As mentioned above, energy reliability is often about helping the customer develop an energy- supply strategy for his or her facility that includes the traditional utility energy supply as well as energy conservation, efficiency and production. In many areas, electric utilities offer rate schedules to residential, commercial and industrial customers with incentives to encourage reduction of energy use and peak demand. These rate schedule incentives include time-of-use (TOU) rates, net metering, interruptible service and demand management.

By making changes in the way the facility operates, the customer may be able to take advantage of TOU rates and reduce facility demand that can result in savings beyond energy conservation and efficiency. Furthermore, on-site energy production—using traditional engine-generator sets, fuel cells, photovoltaics, microturbines and other distributed generation resources—can be used to reduce energy expenses through net metering, to ride through short planned service interruptions, or to reduce the facility’s peak demand charges. Engine-generator sets and fuel cells also can be used to provide emergency power to the facility in many jurisdictions.

This article is the result of a research project, “Energy Roadmap: Electrical Contractor’s Guide for Expanding into the Emerging Energy Market,” sponsored by ELECTRI International Inc. (EI). Thanks to EI for its support.


GLAVINICH is director of Architectural Engineering and Construction Programs and an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 and tglavinich@ku.edu.