When All the Lights Go Out

Backup power for commercial/industrial/institutional (CII) facilities

On June 10, 2006, the power went out in downtown Lubbock, Texas. According to Lubbock Power & Light, a blown transformer was to blame. The outage included the sheriff’s department and the county jail. Fortunately, the backup power generator in these facilities kicked in, and the outage didn’t affect jail operations. However, some smaller businesses did not fare as well.

One week earlier, a similar power outage forced evacuation of Lubbock’s Tinseltown Theater. The lights went out just after 8 p.m. and took more than two hours for power to be restored.

Cases like these may not earn the press coverage of the national crisis outages—such as what occurred in the Northeast blackout of 2003, the California rolling blackouts and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—but they do occur on a daily basis. And today, with companies depending on electricity to feed their technology, not having a backup plan makes them all the more vulnerable.

U.S. businesses spend on average $2 billion each year for industrial uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), while consumers purchase another 200,000 small generators (about 3 kilowatts) because of concerns regarding power quality and reliability. In addition, businesses lose more than $30 billion each year due to power quality and reliability problems, according to technology market researcher Venture Development Corp.

That would explain the increasing interest in backup power generation. Whether traditional diesel powered, solar or fuel cell generator solutions, commercial, industrial and institutional (CII) companies are especially intent on having them in place.

“There is much more awareness after some of the large-scale outages we’ve seen recently,” said Mike Carr, manager of marketing applications, Generac Power Systems Inc., Waukesha, Wis. “Storms in the Gulf Coast and outages in 2002 have made everyone think of their own vulnerabilities.”

There are more solutions available for that reason. Increasingly, commercial and industrial establishments are including backup power as a part of the capital budget, and more often, it is the mainstream businesses seeking generators, Carr said. That means strip malls, gas stations, retail stores and office buildings are looking into how generators can save them money in the long run.

“Clearly the cost of buying a generator is less than the cost of an extended outage,” Carr said.

Just doing the math, it isn’t hard to see the cost of an extended outage to a store, in lost sales, or to a factory, in lost productivity, grossly outweighs the cost of most generators.

And it is not just critical systems that concern the end-users. According to Mark LaRue, diesel power marketing manager, Caterpillar Electric Power Division, Peoria, Ill., “Service and technology-based organizations are becoming increasingly prevalent. There has been a significant rise in the need for collecting, storing and protecting data electronically and having 24/7/365 business availability.”

Users are looking for an integrated solution, systems containing generator sets, switchgears and uninterruptible power supplies designed as a package to work together. For larger companies, with offices across the country or world, it is more cost-effective to sign product support and service agreements to maintain and service their equipment.

New and improved

The way generator sets are sized is changing.

“It’s no longer acceptable to simply add up all of the connected loads and select a generator set of equivalent size. This can lead to either undersizing or oversizing the unit,” LaRue said.

New generator software takes factors such as site conditions, load cycling, non-linear loads and required performance into consideration. That allows end-users the ability to select a competitively sized generator set that best suits their individual needs.

With the help of new technology and significant design changes, newer generator sets are able to handle increasing nonlinear loads. Also, LaRue said, today’s generator solutions can better manage transient response changes occurring on the load.

“A generator can quickly come back up to speed, despite cyclical changes on the load like an air conditioner kicking on or off,” LaRue said.

Generators can also provide better control and performance by integrating many of the generator set components with a common language.

“The engine controller can ‘talk’ to the switchgear in order to quickly respond and react to any changes in the system,” LaRue said.

Today’s backup power solutions can increase the speed of communication between the generator set, switchgear, ATS and UPS and handle a wider array of electrical interference specifications. They can also offer multibreaker packages for distributed loads.

“Each load—whether it’s an emergency load, critical load, fire pump or UPS battery charging pack—all have a unique breaker,” LaRue said.

Regulations and requirements

Starting in 2007, new government regulations will require all stationary and mobile (rental power modules) generator sets to be factory certified according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, LaRue said. 

LaRue predicts that in the next few years some form of emissions standards, like those currently required by the EPA and European Union (EU), will be adopted globally. Engine after-treatment systems may be necessary to meet the EPA Tier 4 regulations, coming into effect in 2011, he said.

Caterpillar and its competitors are meeting or exceeding emissions standards by providing advanced engine technology and sophisticated package control, integrated control systems, and monitoring.

“New codes in some major cities are limiting the amount of fuel that can be stored indoors,” LaRue said. “The way in which fuel is consumed by generator sets is changing to create efficiencies and decrease the associated costs.”

Due to the increasing number of building and construction projects in earthquake-prone regions, building codes are becoming more stringent in terms of the seismic capability of generator sets in addition to other backup building systems.

Contractors should monitor the ever-changing codes and regulations, ensuring that the installed systems will meet them.

Remote monitoring

Some companies also want the added assurance and reliability that 24/7/365 remote monitoring and management can provide. However, with new technology, this is no longer a challenge. 

“Information can be provided in real-time from an operations center to a home office or to any other place where access to a phone, pager or Internet connection is available. Everything from daily reports and trend analysis to automated alarm notifications can be received, identifying preventative maintenance opportunities and allowing for immediate action if required,” LaRue said.

Through remote monitoring systems, off-site start of the standby system is made possible for activities including curtailment, peak shaving and capacity contracts. It also enables off-site testing and emergency start up.

Fuel matters

Driven by the recent wave of natural disasters, many commercial businesses are asking for larger fuel tanks to provide up to 72 hours of generator set operation. End-users expect a system with extended parts life that allows for increased oil change intervals and lowering fuel consumption as a result of electronic metering of fuel delivery.

Generators have commonly been powered using diesel fuel. However, consumers find this to be burdensome, because of difficulties with storing diesel. Many businesses prefer not to have diesel stored on-site due to potential spillage, leakage and odor. Diesel also needs replacing if it sits too long in the tank, which adds another cost.

Furthermore, many high-rise buildings in urban areas are not permitted to locate diesel generators on their roof or elsewhere because of zoning requirements.

Natural gas solutions, while less common, offer a different fuel choice that can provide a reliable and quieter solution. Some facilities are taking advantage of a natural gas reserve near the structure, which saves money.

Natural gas is suitable for theaters, gas stations, stores or schools, though Carr said he also sees demand in industrial facilities.  

Combining several modular natural gas units can bring the power supply to 450 kilowatts (kW) or higher, and the units can be located on different sides of a building.

“It’s less expensive than one humongous diesel generator, and the reliability is close to 100 percent,” he said.

Bi-fuel generators can offer a diesel, natural gas solution that makes combustion cleaner, and in the case of an extended outage, Carr said, it’s a good solution. As natural resources deplete, alternative fuels—bio-fuels (e.g., diesel blended with ethanol) and dual-fuels that start on diesel and switch to natural gas—will be more prevalently used in diesel generator sets.

“Fuel types will be interchangeable. For example, you might use the same fuel to power your generator set as you would to run your boiler,” LaRue said.

LaRue also predicts that contractors can expect new methods of disposal for waste fuel and oil filters to be developed and adopted, and the standardization of certain components within power systems will decrease maintenance time.

“[Also,] instead of radiators, cooling towers will be used to handle excess heat given off by generator sets, air conditioners and manufacturing processes,” he said.

Alternative solutions

There are non-diesel solutions becoming more prevalent for backup power, but cost is still the inhibiting factor. No matter what outage may come, the cost of buying and installing any generator, especially one using alternative power such as hydrogen or PV panels, still seems like a large investment in the short term.

Generac has changed its installation methods partly to address the high initial cost. Originally, a modular power system required paralleling shift-gear equipment, which is often expensive.

“We mounted the paralleling technology right on the generator,” Carr said, which not only allows several generators to operate together, it also reduced the price of the generator. “You used to have to get the generator from one company and the switchgear from another. Now it can be all the same manufacturer, a cleaner system and easier to install.”

American Power Conversion Corp., (APC), West Kingston, RI, is focusing on fuel cell solutions. The hydrogen based systems come smaller, in 10, 20 or 30 kW, but can be stacked in numbers up to 30 for one power system. This is still emerging technology but has been adopted by companies in the past year.

“The primary application we’ve seen has [been] where there is a need for portability, where a generator is not … practical,” said Steven Carlini, APC director of product management for three-phase power.

More companies are seeking fuel-cell hydrogen-based solutions because of environmental reasons, while others are taking advantage of subsidies. 

There are other reasons to move toward alternative backup power sources.

“There are some customers that want the latest and greatest as a showpiece,” Carlini said. However, the fuel cell option can cost four or five times more than a traditional diesel generator.

“Right now that primary cost is installation,” Carlini said. “It’s not a simple electrical installation. There is electric piping for the hydrogen and more for the chiller.”

Today hundreds of companies are providing fuel cell technology, but sales are still conservative.

Prohibitive factors

Many businesses don’t have a backup generator because they are perceived as too expensive. But downtime is also proving expensive for companies, especially those with high-tech, power-dependent data centers.  

Those electrical contractors who understand their customers’ cost concerns, and who also can stress the importance of backup power, will ultimately win out. And while they’re at it, they should sell a remote monitoring contract.                  EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in Washington state. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.


About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com .

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