The Facility Technologist: Sustainable Energy Production
By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the January 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Here we are at the beginning of a new year, and with it comes exciting new technologies that have the potential to change our facilities in the future. Each January, I write about what new technologies are coming up for a range of facility areas. This month, I am addressing just one area of facilities management poised to make a huge impact on many organizations: sustainable electrical production.
In the recent past, there has been an increasing focus on reducing electricity usage in facilities, but that is only half the story. The other half is where that electricity comes from, and there is a crisis brewing there as well. For many, traditional fossil fuels are becoming too expensive, emit too much pollution, and are in limited supply. The infrastructure that generates electricity in the United States is stretched to its limits, with aging power plants unable to keep up with growing demand. It is clear that we need to find alternatives to the methods we use now—methods developed more than 125 years ago.
While alternative methods for producing electricity have been around for many years, they have not received the kind of attention they have been attracting more recently. Oftentimes, even companies that generate electrical power the traditional way are supporting the increase of sustainable energy as a way to address their capacity problems.
As part of this, shifting some of the load out to customer facilities could allow power generation entities to avoid building expensive new plants. Some of the technologies used to execute this approach can fundamentally change facilities in the future. Rather than simply being power consumers, facilities will become power generators as well. Facilities will produce a portion, or maybe even all, of the electricity they use through some amazing innovations.
One invention has the potential to transform various components of a facility itself into power producing elements. Dr. Alan Heeger at the University of California Santa Barbara has made a discovery that has the potential to revolutionize power generating solar panels.
Traditional solar cells use a photovoltaic technology that has not changed significantly in the last 50 years. Photovoltaic solar panels are relatively expensive and heavy, and they need to be pointed directly at the sun in order to be effective.
Heeger’s invention has introduced a new way to generate power from sunlight: solar ink printed on thin film. This breed of photovoltaic material produces electricity when exposed to sunlight. The thin film, which is only a few thousandths of an inch thick, generates electricity far more efficiently than a traditional cell that weighs hundreds of times more.
Heeger formed Konarka Technologies (www.konarka.com) in Lowell, MA, which is manufacturing printed ribbons using solar ink called Power Plastic®. These flexible ribbons are incredibly easy to work with and can be used in a wide variety of applications.
Konarka’s technology also solves one of the main impediments to the use of solar power—cost. The company has already reduced the cost of manufacturing a solar cell from around $2.40 per watt for traditional solar cells to less than $1 per watt for its Power Plastic cells. The company asserts that through mass production the cost will be reduced to around 10¢ per watt. With traditional cells providing an eight to 10 year payback, a 10¢ per watt cost can make return on investment (ROI) payback a big incentive.
Another exciting part of this new technology is its flexibility. Because this Power Plastic is in the form of ink, there are limitless applications. For example, because the ink is translucent, it could be applied to windows like a tint film. This would mean that the glass exterior of a skyscraper could become a huge solar cell, generating electricity while blocking the sun’s glare. Or, solar ink could be applied like a paint to exterior wall surfaces. Roofing materials could also have solar ink printed onto them. The ink could turn the whole building into a giant electrical generator.
The impact of this technology can extend beyond facilities. Because solar ink is so lightweight and flexible, it could be used to make mobile phones with built-in solar cells to recharge the phone, or the ink could be used to create clothing that generates power.
Another exciting technology that could change facilities, especially in urban environments, is a new kind of wind powered generator. Traditional propeller style windmills have been used to generate power for decades, but they have some considerable drawbacks. For one, they are noisy. There are safety issues as well. They can be dangerous to birds. In high winds, they can spin so fast that the blades come off. In winter, they tend to collect ice and then fling it off at high speeds. And they work best in continuous wind that rarely changes direction. These attributes make propeller style wind generators ill suited for urban environments.
A Chicago inventor, Bill Becker, has created a new kind of wind powered generator that offers significant advantages over propeller style systems. Becker uses a corkscrew shaped wind turbine to catch the wind, driving a shaft connected to a generator (see photo above). The corkscrew shape addresses the challenges found with traditional propeller style windmills.
For one, its design prevents it from rotating faster than 380 rpm, which eliminates the high speeds that create noise and shear the blades off propeller systems. The most notable characteristic of Becker’s system is that it works with wind coming from any direction; the corkscrew design enables the turbine to move even when wind comes from multiple directions at once.
Unlike propeller designs that must rotate slowly to accommodate changes in wind direction, Becker’s generator takes advantage of wind from all sides without slowing. This means that, even in the tempestuous, chaotic wind environment of modern cities, the system works where propeller systems would fail.
Becker’s company, Aerotecture (www.aerotecture.com), has already installed this equipment on some buildings in the city, demonstrating that it can withstand the turbulence of the “Windy City.” One building was designed by architect Helmut Jahn specifically to use Aerotecture’s wind turbines.
In facilities that operate at high efficiency and have enough capacity, these systems will sometimes produce more power than the facility uses. Depending on regulations in the location, this extra power can be sold back to the local supplier through special meters that register power flow in both directions. So it is possible that some facilities could not only be self sufficient, they could actually make a profit on electricity. In this scenario, facilities in the future may be designed to generate power to pay a portion of the facility’s construction.
And these facilities will be using a variety of methods to generate power. Facilities near the ocean may generate power from currents, like the tidal generators that are already in use in New York. Facilities in the Midwest would benefit from a combination of solar and wind power.
“We as a country have to move beyond a ‘silver bullet’ mentality in approaching energy and environmental problems and adopt a ‘silver buckshot’ mentality,” says Tim Rowe, manager of renewable energy technology and operations for Aerotecture. “We must realize that no single technology will solve all of our problems, but a combination of renewable technologies can give us the sustainable power we need for the future.”
Imagine the facility of the future, where the building exterior is a giant power generating solar cell, and where wind turbines can continue to supply power during stormy weather. With facilities generating power from these clean sources, we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save money, and lower the risk of large scale power outages.
In the near future, we will see a move away from the centralized power generation paradigm of today towards a grid of self sustainable, power generating facilities. This will mean that the facility manager of tomorrow may need to add “electrical engineer” to the many hats he or she wears. So fire up your solar cells and crank up your wind turbines as we move into an exciting, greener future!
Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is one of the contributing authors for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.
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