Energy deregulation in practice is falling short of consumers' initial expectations that competition would revamp the marketplace. However, even as hopes of a universal new order for energy dealings fade in the chaos of restructuring, distributed generation technology is emerging with increasing promise. Micro-turbine test installations are grabbing customers' attention and igniting their interest not only for peak shaving and disaster recovery applications, but also for sustained operations.

Commercial, industrial, and institutional property managers are primed for micro-turbine applications. National, multisite businesses, traditionally leaders in evaluating and implementing new technologies, are impressed with how the micro-turbine can benefit their facilities.

Leading the Pack

Pacesetters Kmart and Blockbuster are well along the path to setting up micro-turbine test sites to assess generator performance for their operations. Tom Buser, Kmart Corporation's divisional vice president of facility services, is intrigued with the technology. "The unit is slick and it's got my interest," he said. "It's compact, well-packaged, user friendly, and efficient."

Larry Fichuk, national energy manager for Blockbuster, Inc., was equally excited about the potential applications of micro turbines. "It's amazing what this technology can do, and I believe that it will ultimately have a big impact on the way energy providers do business, both on the regulated and the unregulated sides," said Fichuk.

New Generation Technology

The micro turbine may well be a milestone in the evolution of the energy industry. Other retail energy systems, such as lighting, hvac, and energy management, have primarily affected facility operating efficiency. New distributed generation technology, however, can potentially transform not only the infrastructure of the energy industry, but its economics as well.

Customers see that the growing acceptance and installation of turbogenerators may stimulate the development of new electric rates. They also predict that utility companies will gain a new perspective on competition. "This technology could become a major driver in electric industry restructuring," said Buser.

"The micro turbine has been engineered for efficient installation and quiet, safe operation," said Steve Peabody, president of Alternative Power Solutions (APS). "The technology can be efficiently integrated into existing facility infrastructure without disrupting operations or business."

In an alliance with Florida-based Tropic-Kool Engineering, APS has arranged a micro-turbine demonstration site at the engineering company's headquarters. After inspecting the fully operational 30-kW exhibition unit, which supplies approximately 50% of Tropic-Kool's building load, Buser said he was taken with the technology and agreed with Peabody's assessment.

Additional Applications

In addition to the potential use of micro turbines for backup at coastal sites or in other areas where hurricanes are a factor, the technology holds promise for base load applications. "There is negligible pollution and noise so there are lots of places to put the unit," said Fichuk. "Customers won't even know it's there, but they won't be inconvenienced by power outages, either."

Disaster recovery is an important benefit for Kmart. "The faster we can get our stores up and running after a hurricane or a blizzard, the faster we can support our communities with supplies," Buser said.

Micro turbines have a wide variety of applications in addition to back-up generation, load reduction, and outage recovery. The units are a source of voltage stabilization and offer customers a means for increased capacity to meet base load demand without the addition of lines and transformers. Cogeneration is another possibility for applications where heat output is a factor. In addition, the generators provide protection against price volatility as markets deregulate.

Economic Considerations

The obstacles to widespread micro-turbine installations appear to be economic rather than technical. Customers traditionally required a two- to three-year payback on energy-saving investments and have expressed their desire for a lower initial capital investment that would make multisite installations more attractive.

"There is every expectation that the cost of these units will come down in the near term. This is a new technology on the market, but it has been in development for some time and the manufacturers are right now in the process of rolling from beta production to volume production," said Peabody. "There are other sources of distributed generation, and the cost of micro turbines will have to be in line with what the market will bear."