DG and ride-through technologies could solve grid reliability problems

Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor

The grid is 99.9 percent reliable, which sounds fabulous. Yet, it leaves almost nine hours of downtime per year that end users must contend with, and, for some industries, it can be a hardship. There are, however, a number of options available to deal with the grid’s ups and downs.

In the course of research for “The North American Market for Grid Power Solutions: Distributed Generation (DG) & Ride-Through Technologies,” Venture Development Corp. (VDC) interviewed a number of end users who demand high reliability. One datacom mentioned that they lose “$100,000 in lost sales per minute” and a telecom revealed that they see “$1,000,000 an hour in lost revenues” when the power shuts down.

According to VDC, most of their study participants either already use or plan to use an integrated power system (DG plus a ride-through) to solve their problem, and many are choosing a recip gen-set/ battery UPS solution, which is currently the popular set-up. Integrated power systems cover all the bases. The moment there’s an outage-or even simply a power quality problem-the ride-through technology, which is commonly a battery UPS or a flywheel, works to assure uninterrupted power. However, if the problem lasts for longer than a few seconds, then the DG kicks in.

Top dog with DG

According to Nathan Andrews, a VDC analyst who worked on the report, fuel cells remain the main growth category under DG, if only for the flurry surrounding research and development (the Department of Energy just infused the R&D side with $1.5 billion), but he also cautions that fuel cell development has a faulty track record.

“Fuel cell development has gone through approximately five attempt cycles to reach commercialization and mass production since its discovery in 1838. Because of this, a certain stand-off, ‘let’s wait and see’ attitude has emerged among utilities and end users,” he told EL&P.

Andrews pointed out that the place to start with fuel cells may be the resource recovery market, where an end user can use waste gas to produce ‘free’ power and heat, although, even for that market, prices will have to drop dramatically. Right now initial costs for fuel cells hover in the range of $11,250-$30,000/kW, which is far above those of reciprocating gen-sets, according to Andrews. He believes the cost will have to fall to $500-$1,000/kW for fuel cells to truly be competitive.

On the other side of the issue, Andrews also stated that, in certain townships, diesel recip gen-sets are limited in their hours of operation per year due to emissions standards. So, the Clean Air Act is actually advocating more efficient technologies such as fuel cells.

“DG technologies are often equated to renewables, and therefore considered environmentally benign,” he stated. “In fact, most installed DG units today are emergency diesel generators that are far dirtier to operate than almost any central station power plant.”

As for the future of DG, Andrews sees it continuing to “redefine and reshape itself for a number of years,” moving it out of its current primary niche for back-up and stand-by applications. Again, the future hinges on those prices for DG declining.

Andrews works as an analyst for Venture Development Corp. He can be contacted via e-mail at nathana@vdc-corp.com. More information on VDC’s study of grid solutions can be requested by e-mailing the company at info@vdc-corp.com.

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