A Methodical Approach to Energy

The electrical contractor (EC) should build its energy services business on four distinct categories that, together, reduce energy use and expenses, increase facility efficiency and productivity, improve the environment, and provide a reliable energy supply that meets the business’ requirements. These four categories of energy services are energy conservation, efficiency, production and reliability.

In today’s uncertain economic environment, it is understandable that customers may be reluctant to invest in energy conservation, efficiency and production projects. These projects are typically discretionary and undertaken as a capital investment, competing with other potential business investments for limited financial resources based on planned return on investment (ROI). Most customers will refrain from making discretionary capital investments until the economic environment is clearer, especially since government incentives can have a significant impact on the ROI of energy conservation, efficiency and production projects.

On the other hand, a business must have a dependable source of electric energy, and therefore, your customers may view energy reliability projects as a necessary investment. The EC can help customers assess their current facility’s power supply and develop a plan to reduce the risk of losses resulting from prolonged outages.

Assess current energy supply

Most customers rely solely on their local electric utility for their power supply because it has been dependable in the past. However, blackouts and brownouts during high-demand periods, unexpected outages due to utility equipment and system failures, and prolonged outages caused by severe weather have customers wondering what their exposure to these risks are. In addition, customers are considering what the future holds for the reliability of their utility service as electricity demand continues to increase, existing power plants are aging, new power plants are needed to meet the growing electricity demand, and replacements for obsolete power plants are not being built.

Should a customer come to you with concerns, what can you do to help them? The first step in this process is to help the customer assess the reliability and quality of its current electricity supply in relation to its business and develop a plan to address risks associated with possible service interruptions. This assessment needs to consider the business losses that the customer is likely to sustain for electricity outages of various durations (if the facility remains intact) and whether the business could continue to function in full or in part with an alternative-power supply.

For customers that are primarily service businesses within the local community, the impact of a service interruption would be limited to the loss of revenue resulting from the business being closed during the outage. For customers that operate manufacturing and service businesses that cover wider geographic area, the impact of a prolonged outage might include losses like customer goodwill and product spoilage. 

The probability of electric service interruptions should be assessed based on the facility’s history as well as the current and future utility regulatory climate, anticipated load growth, generation mix, and transmission and distribution infrastructure.

The customer’s emergency and standby power systems are usually mandated by local codes in the case of emergency and legally required power systems. This is in contrast to optional standby systems, such as uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs), that are intended to protect the customer from economic loss. In general, emergency and standby systems are only intended to operate for a limited time and typically do not have the battery capacity or on-site fuel supply to operate for an extended period. However, these systems are very important for protecting occupants during emergencies, assisting in firefighting and rescue operations, avoiding damage to sensitive electronic equipment, and preventing other short-term product and financial losses that could result from a power outage. Emergency and standby systems are often installed in basements, outside in unprotected areas, or in other parts of a facility for reasons of convenience rather than survivability and security. The EC should assess emergency and standby systems to determine their adequacy for current building use, survivability and security, and state of readiness given their age and maintenance history.

Develop an alternative-energy plan

Based on the assessment, the EC’s next step is to develop an alternative-energy plan that will alleviate the customer’s concerns. This plan could include expanding and reconfiguring the customer’s existing emergency and standby power systems to more effectively address possible current and future electric service interruptions. For example, if the existing diesel generator is adequate for the load but the customer’s concern is the availability of an on-site fuel supply to ride through an extended outage, the diesel engine could be converted to operate on natural gas or be replaced by a natural gas engine. Other options could include adding on-site power production and storage systems, such as fuel cells or microturbines that operate on natural gas; a UPS; photovoltaic systems; or a combination of strategies to provide the needed reliability.

About the Author

Thomas E. Glavinich

Freelance Writer
Thomas E. Glavinich was an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas. His tenure as one of Electrical Contractor's most trusted and reliable source of industry research end...

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