Small generator powers 'off-grid' buildings

May 16, 2000
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SAN ANTONIO, TX — Hvac contractors looking for additional markets may find themselves cast in the role of problem-solvers for light commercial building owners, by providing them an innovative, on-site, 70-kW electric energy generation system.

The device, called the “Parallon 75 TurboGenerator,” is hardly larger than a rooftop unit. It allows building owners to go “off-grid” and power the structure, including hvac systems, lights, and other equipment.

This simple unit uses a microturbine generator to provide electricity from natural gas, propane, or unwanted waste gases.

It is a variation on jet airplane turbine engines, with only one moving part (a rotor on a central shaft) and is about the size of two home refrigerators. Unit cost is about $50,000.

It promises savings of 10% or more in energy costs, as well as protection from outages that occur because utilities are straining to keep up with the ever-growing load.

On-line at McDonald's

The system is already operating in a McDonald’s restaurant in Bensenville, IL, where it has been in service since August.

Early returns have resulted in cost savings, says Dennis Stabile, owner of the restaurant.

“Now we can keep our doors open, no matter what is happening outside,” he says.

This may be the opening wedge of a national campaign to sell to all McDonald’s stores, which would be a huge market. The fast food giant spends more than $500 million annually on electricity and gas for its 12,000 U.S. outlets.

Typical stores use rooftop units of varying sizes to cool the buildings.

Unicom Distributed Energy (UDE) and AlliedSignal Power Systems provide the grid-independent equipment, which has already been installed in several other nonresidential buildings, including a bank branch, a Walgreen’s store, and a small sheet metal working shop.

The supplemental energy system was unveiled at the annual meeting of the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) by Mark Kuntz, vice president of UDE.

Even the load

Electric utilities around the country, now undergoing massive deregulation, seem to like the system, since it permits them to even out their electric load, says Kuntz.

Most users will be those that can go off the grid during peak hours, when electricity is billed at the highest level. Power savings of 15% to 20% are promised.

It’s a sign of deregulation that UDE is a unit of Unicom Corp., the parent of Commonwealth Edison, the electric utility for northern Illinois.

More important, the company’s survey of small building owners found that 90% of them had suffered at least one power outage in the previous year, which entailed an average loss of $1,500 in sales and inventory.

“When we show our customers the 70-kW decrease in electricity demand and the corresponding decrease in their bills, it’s easy for them to make the connection between the Parallon system and their bottom line.”

Ramping up production

The company is rolling out the Parallon 75s at a rate of one per day, but expects to produce as many as 10,000 units by next year.

The company also anticipates boosting the capacity of the systems, generating up to 375 kW for larger buildings.

Key markets include buildings that are super-sensitive to the effects of power outages, such as restaurants and supermarkets, where perishables inflict a heavy penalty.

Want to learn more about this? Contact UDE at P.O. Box A-3005, Chicago, IL 60690-3005; 708-236-8074.

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