Preheat Standby Diesels with Heat Pump

(Many of the stories we’ve been looking represent new technology with big potential impact, but whose commercial availability may take a while. Here’s something very much here and now that may appear to be a small niche, but which could be a valuable feature to be able to offer customers, and even to apply on a utility’s own facilities.)

“Reduce the cost and increase the reliability of a standby generator, with no initial capital outlay.”

For standby diesels to start reliably, they need to be kept warm. Standard practice (for 200 kw to 2.5MW gensets) is to attach an electric resistance heater to maintain a temperature of 100-140 degF. As a standard practice, nearly all engines have such heaters, installed either by the engine manufacturer or the distributor. (Watlow and Kim HotStart have most of this market.) Heat can be applied to the oil (which is kept flowing and at pressure), the engine coolant and of course to the fuel itself (which can turn to jelly in cold weather).

For an engine that has to be ready to go at any time with no warning, this electric load (2-8 kw) is (or should be) on all the time, and can as much as $6-8000 per year or more. It’s usually a hidden cost, buried in a facility’s overall power bill, and it’s not something engine makers talk about. Many owners and operators don’t even know the heaters are there, and O&M agreements don’t usually cover them. The average life of a heater is typically about 18 months. When it fails, it might not be noticed, leaving a cold engine at risk. Replacing heaters adds to the large costs for power — the biggest single operating cost of owning a standby generator.

If an engine is started cold, it might not even start. If it does start, and especially if it is heavily loaded immediately, heavy wear and tear will come from running cold. Engine life is shortened, and overhauls come sooner. A bad episode can wreck the engine right then and there. (One distributor for CAT told me they recommend keeping an engine warm all the time, and this includes prime power applications, not just standby/emergency. In some applications, codes require it.)

So there are three main issues: the cost for power, wear and tear from cold starts, and the unreliability — which can undercut the reasons for having standby generators in the first place.

To solve these problems, Energy Resources Management (ERM), Tampa, Florida, sells a specialized heat pump manufactured by Trane.

The 1.5-ton DH-12 air source heat pump saves 80% of the energy and cost of heating. Equally important, the heat pump (primary) runs in series with the heaters (secondary) to provide the redundant heating source needed to protect diesel engines from cold-start risk factors. In addition, resistance heater replacement costs and emissions are reduced (i.e., emissions from utility generation of the power saved).

ERM offers a shared energy savings program. Performance measurement and contracting allows them to provide the heat pump through a turnkey operation with no capital investment by the owner. Trane manufactures, installs, and services the heat pump. Successful installations include public and private sector entities such as Atlanta Hartsfield Intl Airport, MBNA, Bank of America, and the New York Stock Exchange. Municipal utilities and waste water treatment facilities have been early and frequent adopters.

While the savings for one engine may not represent a large amount of revenue, there are a lot of engines out there that could use this (and shared savings revenues continue year after year). There is also the improvement to quick start reliability to consider. This would seem to be a good fit for many C&I customers and utilities themselves.

ERM is looking for customers, of course, and for partners, reps, distributors, etc. to offer the program across the country. Call me for more information.

Nicholas Colmenares, President
Energy Resources Management, LLC
Tampa, FL

Is DG like the PC?

This article by our friend Mark Mills appeared in World Climate Report, and again (modified) in the June 1 issue of Public Utility Fortnightly. A good reality check on the rhetoric of distributed generation. I especially like the point that there’s no “Moore’s Law” for electric power generation.


Distributed Generation is to Electricity as PCs are to…?

By Mark P. Mills

Distributed generation is the latest “killer application” at energy conferences and seminars. Global apocalysts say DG is to electricity what the PC has been to the computer industry. Just as PCs supposedly took down mainframes and the likes of IBM, so too will DG erase central, fossil-fueled power plants and big utilities.

Even otherwise serious vendors of DG technology have found themselves seduced into playing the climate change card in the hopes of benefiting from imminent federal largess.

DG enthusiasts believe the day will soon come when consumers can head over to Home Depot and buy a little “appliance” to take home, plug in, and supply all the power needed, grid-free. Prototypes already exist for a refrigerator-size generator that works like the “auxiliary power units” airplanes use to make electricity while sitting at the gate (don’t they make life comfortable?). The trade press is filled with DG hype. Independence (from those “evil” utility giants who’ve provided us with cheap power for 75 years) looms near.


Energy tech forecasters and global climate change scaremongers share an ally. The anti fossil-fuel lobby has for 25 years been predicting the imminent demise of fossil fuels, the planet’s primary energy sources, and the imperative to shift to something else. The climate change threat only increases the urgency of making an ostensibly inevitable transition to a post?fossil-fuel world.

What’s more, DG kills two birds with one technology: Fossil fuels and utilities, both of which apocalysts reflexively dislike. DG, they believe, will set us free of central coal-fired power plants. After all, coal supplies 55 percent of what goes into the power grid. And that percentage is unlikely to diminish.

Exciting things are happening on the DG front. But they will not have the transformative effect their advocates would have you believe they will. In fact, DG will not replace coal plants, but will complement them and almost certainly increase the use of fossil fuels and likely pit oil (not favored by apocalysts) against natural gas (reluctantly favored by apocalysts).


The PC analogy, while seductive, completely fails. Regardless of the astronomical growth in PC use, the venerable mother of computing’s “heavy iron,” IBM, is far from out of the picture as a major corporation, as its stellar stock performance this decade attests. IBM and its ilk are benefiting from, not being eviscerated by, the information revolution in all its forms.

The data traffic that PCs and the Internet create, and the data appetites expanding applications for computing create, are driving the market toward so-called “super servers”—the 21st-century version of “mainframes.”

But those using the DG: PC analogy usually mean to imply that DG stands on the threshold of rapid cost reductions, emulating the collapsing price and rising performance of PCs over the past 10 years. You hear them warning utilities that central station power plants will follow the fate of slide rules.

The PC price/performance trend arose from advances in the technology used to fabricate integrated circuits. Declining scale and increasing speed equal lower costs. It’s “Moore’s Law.” Still, though today’s desktop is more powerful than yesterday’s mainframe (and today’s mainframes are awesome), Moore’s Law just doesn’t apply to DG and electricity. Sorry.

Power plants have the distinct disadvantage of being constrained by a much longer-standing law, from the realm of physics—the Carnot limit for thermo-dynamic systems, which is the same for all power plants, big and small. Translation: The temperature of combustion sets the limit for the energy efficiency of burning a fuel. Size doesn’t matter; and small actually may be worse. Technologies to tweak efficiency are not only applicable to all sizes, but many of the tweaks are easier and more cost-effective for big iron. This basic tenet holds true for all of the DG technologies based on burning fuels, which are the most likely near-term DG systems.

PCs Ain’t PVs

But what of solar, wind, and fuel cells, the apocalysts’ true DG darlings? After all photovoltaics (PVs) are made from the same basic stuff as microprocessors. Sorry, the analogy still fails.

Sure, PVs are made from silicon (or similar materials) just like microprocessors. Here the similarity ends. To gain greater PC power, engineers make ever-smaller components of increasing density, thus expanding the total number of microscopic electronic devices per square inch.

But you just can’t make a smaller, more efficient PV. Rather, you need more (lots more) square inches—nay, square acres—of silicon devices to gather the fuel, which is in this case the sun’s energy. True the sun is limitless, but it’s just too darn far away to produce high-density power, hence the need for lots of acreage to gather the dilute power. (Not so of course on Mercury, where ponds would be molten metal, not water).

Wind power suffers from the same problem. Greater economy and power don’t come by making windmills smaller—you need bigger ones and more of them, lots more, to power a nation.

Then what of fuel cells, those intriguing devices that use electrochemical magic to make electricity without combustion? In brief: Too expensive and they still need fuel. The materials that make the electrochemical magic happen are expensive. Lower costs face basic, almost intractable (but probably eventually solvable) materials issues.

Fuel cells run on fuel, ideally hydrogen. Virtually all of the solar system’s hydrogen is in the sun: inconvenient. So we can make hydrogen here (expensive and energy-intensive) or use the hydrogen inherent in conventional fuels such as methanol and even gasoline, also a costly exercise. We will, to be sure, eventually see real advances in fuel cells, but they’re no threat today to the gigawatts of conventional generation.

Oil-fired DG

Which brings us to the last category for DG: microturbines and diesel engines. Most of the current market hype surrounds microturbines, which are really just very small jet engines tied to an electric generator. They do work, but they need fuel—usually natural gas, but oil works too. They still cost too much, and despite the hype, you still can’t buy one. Worse yet for efficiency mavens, they are less thermally efficient than central power plants.

That said, it is clear that practical and useful microturbines will emerge soon, and almost certainly in advance of any other new form of DG. The most likely near-term applications for microturbines will be in three areas: where reliability supercedes cost; where power is very expensive, capital scarce, and incremental power needs modest (Costa Rica, for example); and in meeting costly peak demands.

Remember last summer’s astronomical price spike for peak power during the heat wave? Just a few of those go a long way toward covering the higher costs for DG peaking. In all likelihood, the folks installing microturbines to shave peaks will be the same as those operating or selling coal-fired baseload power to create a seamless, blended reliable and economical power source.

Ironically, the only immediately cost-effective DG technology is the venerable diesel engine. So-called diesel-gen sets already exist by the tens of thousands, powering oil fields, small villages, and military bases. Recent advances in materials and controls have made diesels even cheaper and more efficient (better than microturbines), and exceptionally reliable. And you can buy them right now.

Power experts are already forecasting that deregulation will generate a boom in use. They can burn either oil or natural gas, and in most applications use the former. This is clearly not what apocalysts intend deregulation of utilities to effect.

Off-peak coal: a real “killer app”

Perhaps the worst nightmare for coal-haters is the potential of new technologies to achieve cheap off-peak kWh storage—distributed storage. Small, high-tech flywheels look promising (just park them outside beside your central AC unit). You spin them up at night with an electric motor powered by otherwise “wasted” and ultra-economical (maybe 1.5¢/kWh) off-peak power. The motor works as a generator in the daytime, drawing the kinetic energy off the flywheel. Easy, reliable, no new fuels, one moving part. Slick. Uses the cheapest off-peak power too; hydro (and nuclear) in a few places, coal everywhere else.

The capital costs for diesel gen-sets are already a lot lower than for central power plants. Given that, and the low cost of fuel, why isn’t every business making its own power already? Few end-users want the operational and maintenance hassles. Electricity coming off the grid is awfully low-maintenance. The collective cost of tending to millions of distributed (quirky) products remains the showstopper.

We’re all winners

Nonetheless, significant and viable niche markets for DG are inevitable, probably up to 10 percent of total U.S. demand. Once momentum starts building, and reliability grows, emerging technologies can make a noticeable dent in new supply. A critical leap for fuel-based DG will be cost-effective, network-based remote maintenance and monitoring of distributed equipment through advanced sensors, information technology, and neural networks.

Bottom line: DG is coming. The computer analogy does work in one way. Just as PCs are driving demand for mainframes, so too will DG drive demand for larger, more efficient and low-cost central power sources.

Physicist Mark P. Mills is a technology strategist and energy consultant and president of the research-consulting firm Mills McCarthy & Associates Inc.


World Climate Report is the nation’s leading publication covering the breaking news concerning the science and political science of global climate change. Available online at —

Environ. Capital Forum, Chicago Oct 22

–> UFTO Utilities are especially invited to attend this event. Be sure to pass this along as appropriate in your company

Here is a notice for a venture forum in Chicago the week after next. Attendance is strictly limited to “qualified investors”.

—> Also note below a separate “invitation only” event –project financing.

For more information about the ECN (Environmental Capital Network), check their website at

Environmental Capital Forum — Promising Technology Companies

On October 21-22, 1998, the East Coast Environmental Capital Forum will introduce investors to selected companies commercializing a range of industrial process, energy, and other environmental technologies, products and services. The Forum will feature fourteen early- and expansion-stage companies that were selected based upon the strengths of their technologies, their markets and their management teams.

Congress Plaza Hotel and Convention Center

A Reception hosted by Coopers & Lybrand LLP will be held at the same location during the evening of October 21, 1998. The Forum will last from 8 am to 3 pm on October 22, 1998.

This specialized forum will capitalize on a growing investor interest in innovative technologies that enhance both industrial productivity and environmental quality. It will introduce the following promising companies to investors, and provide investors with opportunities to network with each other. A summary of the presenting companies by sector is below:

· Firm is commercializing an innovative, zero-emissions, high energy fuel cell technology.
· Firm is developing a leading electrochromic technology for building & transportation windows.
· Firm is expanding production of an electric motorbike.
· Firm is commercializing unique glazing material that reversibly turns windows from clear to white.

· Firm is expanding production of robotic metal working systems for industrial markets.
· Firm is commercializing novel thermal induction technology to treat and dispose of medical waste.
· Firm is producing advanced composite materials used in the construction, building trade and furniture industries.
· Firm is producing aerobic bio-reactor that pre-treats wastewater in food processing and other industrial settings.
· Firm is building plant to convert waste plastic into high quality diesel fuel.


· Firm is commercializing revolutionary process to remove hazardous organic contaminants from groundwater.
· Firm is commercializing environmental software for power facilities, airports and similar institutions.
· Firm is expanding production of composite reinforced plastic materials utilizing fiber waste.
· Firm is commercializing innovative characterization technology specifically adapted for nuclear waste.

The Forum’s Business Selection Committee was composed of prominent investors actively involved in the industry, including Ms. Stacy Gray of First Analysis Corp. (Chicago, IL); Mr. Ethan Stambler of Advent International Corporation (Boston, MA); Mr. Tony Biddle of Zolfo Cooper Capital (New York, NY); Mr. Nicholas Parker of Technology Development Corp. (Toronto, Ontario); Mr. Tony Lent of EA Capital (New York, NY); Mr. Samuel Hope of Asset Renewal Services (Milwaukee, WI); Mr. Bradley Whitehead of CoreResources (Cleveland, OH), Mr. Paul Purcell of Enertek Partners (Columbus, OH), and Ms. Dawn McGee of Global Partners LLP (Sebastopol, CA).

Bio-Manufacturing Project Financing Opportunities
— Invitation only — Contact ECN for details.

October 21, 9:00 am to noon same location as above
Four presenting companies are seeking project finance capital. They have received earlier venture investment support from the AARC.

AARCC is the Alternative Agric. Research and Commcialization Corp., a venture investment subsidiary of the US Dept. of Agriculture that invests in startup companies that use agricultural waste materials in manufacturing.