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Large-scale Businesses – Options for Power Systems

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Staff Writer, Energy Central, BrightGreen PR

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Given the rise in energy costs, many businesses are looking to generate a proportion of their power themselves. This can encompass everything from conventional thermal generation, renewables, and energy storage. Some of the larger plants could effectively become their own mini-utilities, and of course costs can be reduced by selling surplus electricity back to the grid.

Driving this change are priorities for emissions reduction, sustainability and decarbonization, anxieties about continuous supply of power, more stringent government regulations as well as energy costs.

The companies will inevitably end up having to manage their demand and loads, whilst also handing some of it off to the grid energy providers as well. This is of course, adding complexity to an even more complex system.

Manufacturing plants, data centers, hospitals, shopping malls, and college campuses are among the large commercial and industrial (C&I) operations which might benefit from onsite power generation. It could be a conventional power plant, utilizing gas co-generation; renewable energy from solar, wind, or geothermal; or stored electricity from fuel cells or battery energy banks. The installation of a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) is also being considered by at least one U.S. university and could be a way to power remote locations.

While most large plants continue to take most of their electricity from the grid, many businesses, faced with rising costs, are looking at generating their own power. For example, farms can use bio-waste to generate electricity. Solar panels on roofs are a popular option.

Various different hardware and software technologies can be used to implement C&I power systems, from both established and emerging companies in the energy sector. The first stage is obviously to reduce costs by energy efficiency: upgrade insulation, install efficient lighting heating, cooling and ventilation. That is the “low-hanging fruit”.

The next option is supplementing grid power with renewable energy DERs, often solar but could be other types, depending on circumstances. The third option is to look at local power generation from cleaner, localized renewable sources to generate electricity and supplement the needed power. A further option is installing large battery banks to store energy during off-peak hours. This approach helps handle peak power demands and reduces the cost of installing more power lines.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has replaced its Central Utilities Plant, decommissioning an older 22-MW gas turbine, to install two new ones, generating 44-MW, via a heat recovery steam generator.

Purdue University in Indiana is partnering with Duke Energy, the state’s largest utility, on a project that would power the college's campus—and also serve electricity to the local grid—with a Small Modular Reactor. Idaho National Laboratory, which is at the forefront of a new US drive to explore nuclear technology, recently announced it plans an onsite nuclear reactor as part of its research on net-zero emissions at its Idaho Falls location. If SMRs can be proved feasible, then C&I or campuses could install them as part of their own microgrid.

Advanced software, to predict and manage loads is also part of the emerging technology. This will need to communicate with the local utilities, as well as whatever microgrid it is serving, to maximize benefits and avoid issues. Interestingly, utilities are now looking to be technology partners with large facilities who plan to generate their own power. That makes sense, as the utilities have all the expertise and equipment know-how to install and manage the facilities. In that case they might be selling some of the electricity back to themselves.

Overall, businesses will inevitably become prosumers, both consuming and generating power and will need to be integrated into the grid if supply and demand is to be balanced effectively in a more complex, but hopefully, lower carbon, and more distributed energy future.

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